The Bone of Contention

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1. Academic Issues


Since 2006, A. K. Ramanujan’s article “Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” had been part of the Delhi University (DU) course, “Culture in India: a Historical Perspective” for BA (Honors) students (Thilak, 2011). Opposition to the essay turned violent in February of 2008, when activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a youth wing of the BJP, activists assaulted and vandalized the office of the head of Delhi University’s History Department, S.Z.H. Jafri (“ABVP”, 2008).

In 2008, the first legal challenges to the essay being included in the DU curriculum were presented to the Delhi High Court. These objections were turned down by the High Court, and subsequently brought before the Supreme Court (Thilak, 2011). The Supreme Court directed Vice-Chancellor Professor Dinesh Singh to submit a committee’s expert opinion to the university’s Academic Council (Thilak, 2011). Made up of four experts, three of the four committee members ruled that Prof. Ramanujan’s article should remain upon the syllabus. In the committee's report, the dissenting committee member explained the motivations for voting for this article’s removal (Thilak, 2011). This member claimed that only teachers from Hindu backgrounds could properly teach Prof. Ramanujan’s article: "If the teacher explains the background of these versions, the students may be convinced (Thilak, 2011). But I doubt if college teachers are well-equipped to handle the situation which, I forebear, is likely to become more difficult in the case of a non-Hindu teacher" (Thilak, 2011).

However, the other experts within the committee were supportive. Expert A noted: “The recommended readings from the essay is very appropriate as it critically and objectively traces out the developments in historical perspective with great vision and unassailable scholarship…I see nothing objectionable, repeat nothing objectionable, in this scholarly essay on Rāmāyaṇa by Prof. Ramanujan” (Vijetha, 2011). Expert B went on to state: “with huge ugly animal shapes, the miracle weapons, and supernatural feats of heroes, no sane person can consider the Rāmāyaṇas works of history…Indian scholarship has always regarded Valmiki's Rāmāyaṇa as Adikavya (the earliest poem) and the poet is by definition completely free in his world of imagination...apare kavya samsare kavireva prajapati – the poet is the supreme creator in the boundless world of poetry” (Vijetha, 2011).

On October 9, 2011, Delhi University’s Academic Council voted to remove “Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas” from the University’s syllabus (Bhuyan, 2011). Nine of 120 council members objected to the expulsion of the article (Thilak, 2011). Rakesh Kumar, one of the nine who voted to keep Prof. Ramanujan’s essay on the department’s syllabus, stated, “This is a glaring example of an academic institution succumbing to pressure from right-wing political parties” (Mishra, 2011). On October 24, 2011 hundreds of professors and students of Delhi University protested against the Academic Council’s removal of the essay (Bhuyan, 2011). The protestors marched to the Vice-Chancellor’s office and demanded the reinstatement of the essay within the syllabus (Gohain, 2011).

In late November 2001, controversy over the removal of the essay became a global matter. Over 450 scholars sent a letter of protest to Oxford University Press (OUP), publisher of The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan, for statements allegedly made as part of a legal judgment that they would cease to re-print two books that contain the essay (Howard, 2011). The scholars expressed their wish that OUP make a public statement “to the right of scholars to publish their works without fear of suppression or censorship”(Howard, 2011). Organized by Sheldon Pollock, professor of Indian studies at Columbia University, Paula Richman, professor of South Asian Religions at Oberlin College, and Vinay Dharwadker, Professor of Languages and Cultures of Asia at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the signed protest urged OUP to state publicly their commitment to keeping Prof. Ramanujan’s work available in print (Howard, 2011). As of early December 2011, OUP has responded to the demands of the scholars and publicly stated they will immediately reprint The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan (Howard, 2011).


2. Cultural Issues


A central literary issue that A.K. Ramanujan's “Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas” essay engages is the concept of a canonical text. Prof. Ramanujan classifies differing Rāmāyaṇa texts as “tellings” in contrast to “versions or variants”; the neutrality of the term emphasizes that no text or “telling” is normative over others (citation). The 5th BCE version of the Rāmāyaṇa narrative attributed to Valmiki is widely recognized as the canonical text. In the essay, Prof. Ramanujan juxtaposes the Valmiki narrative with other tellings--the 18th century Thai Ramakien, the Kannada telling attributed to an “Untouchable bard,” the Tamil Iramavataram by Kampan, and the Jain telling by Vimalasuri. In doing so, the essay suggests the canonical equivalence of each telling.

The sacred status given to the Rāmāyaṇa narrative complicates how Prof. Ramanujan’s essay destabilizes the primacy of Valmiki's canonical text. The story is understood as divine by many religious communities, particularly among Hindus. Examining the constructed and changing nature of a sacred text, as Prof. Ramanujan does in his essay, may create tension between perspectives on the text as a fixed tenet of a devotional tradition, and as a literary work open to some interpretation and literary scrutiny. Yet Prof. Ramanujan is careful to point out that a “relational structure” of the Rāmāyaṇa exists across translations and tellings. Differences are that of variations between the narrative's form and structure. Literary form is a text's principle of organization—in other words, the core story. Literary structure (B) is the set of interrelationships that determine how the parts of the plot compromise the narrative whole. Prof. Ramanujan's essay reveals how the interrelationships within a core Rāmāyaṇa narrative may vary across contexts and tellings.

Ramanjuan's essay calls attention to how ancient histories are written, making it an important contribution to scholarship of historical epistemology (A). A central argument of the essay is that the many tellings of the Rāmāyaṇa are intimately connected with the culture(s) that produced them. Prof. Ramanujan discusses how, for example, Jain tellings of the Rāmāyaṇa do not include miraculous aspects of the story and it's characters. The emphasis on rationality within Jain tellings demonstrates his assessment that Jains "consider themselves rationalists." (citation) Therefore the essay puts forth an argument for the value of epic narrative to historical studies. Implict in Prof. Ramanujan's thesis is that the Rāmāyaṇas are not only the stories of main characters Rama and Sita; these tellings are also crucial historical evidence of the social customs and cultures of ancient societies. By putting forth examples from epic narrative as insights into ancient cultures, Prof. Ramanujan's essay gets to the heart of the question of epistemologies of ancient cultural histories.


3. Legal Issues


It is fairly easy to say that absolutely nothing should be censored in the literary world, from works of fiction to scholarly essays and non-fiction. Based on many controversies throughout history, it seems as if the censoring of art is certainly seem as “backward” and “primitive”. In America, freedom of expression, speech, and religion are guaranteed by the first amendment of the American Constitution. Basic freedoms are assured in American society, and often these freedoms are exported as a way into a more progressive future. However, the freedom to do anything certainly has its limits; for example, a person cannot yell “Fire!” into a crowded theater when there is no fire for reasons that would possibly instigate violence in the form of trampling. What if a literary work had a similar affect, where, let’s say, scholarly essay was the sole reason behind mass violence and social chaos? States and governments across the world usually wish to ensure the safety of their citizens, while most try to also allow the freedom of expression and art, even though sometimes the art is deemed as offensive and blasphemous to some demographics. Oxford University Press' refusal to print A.K. Ramanujan's essay "Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas"
in India is certainly a case of literary censorship when a group of people found the essay offensive to their religious beliefs; however, many legal issues arise within the Indian political and judicial infrastructure when this particular essay is considered for censorship.

Oxford University Press released a statement regarding three works of A.K. Ramanujan, including The Collected Essays and Many Rāmāyaṇas, both of which contain the essay in question, "Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas". In the statement they express that these works will continue to be printed and made available, and that OUP ensures the dissemination of scholarly material freely. OUP has chosen to uphold the freedom of expression detailed in the Indian constitution, found in Article 19, over the decision to censor a piece of scholarly material. Article 19(2), however, holds the rights of the collective society over that of the individual, but this portion of the constitution is certainly muddied and contains no clear right and wrong when it comes to one’s freedom of expression. I would argue that nobody has a definitive grasp on what will be good for society as a whole, as most of these opinions are formed in hindsight. Censoring "Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas" is like stampeding out of a public place claiming that a person had yelled “Fire!”, even though nobody had. Regardless of the work in question, one group will applaud while another group will condemn, and while conservative Hindus condemn the "Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas"
as offensive, scholars across the world applaud the work as a deep look into the life that a story takes as it molds into different cultures across the world. Ritvik Chaturvedi beautifully writes in one of India’s most prestigious newspapers, The Hindu, “Will we give the next generation the chance to think independently, or will they be the recipients of restricted and censored education.”

Whether something is considered right or wrong, the fact that A.K. Ramanujan took to the countryside to look at how the story of Rama, Sita, Lakhsmana, Hanuman, and Ravana has taken a life of it’s own within other cultures is simply that, a fact. Many people refuse to consider facts especially when their personal beliefs don’t necessarily coincide with those facts; however, in the world of academia, where many people are spending countless hours learning about the human condition and our place in the world, all things need to be considered, and although these things may cause certain groups of people to feel offended there is certainly no need to obliterate them from the face of the earth. Freedom of expression certainly has its limits, but on the other hand the freedom of those in power to censor delicate materials also have to consider whether or not they are pursuing the good of collective society or fulfilling their own desires. Either way, like in the case here, collective society will voice whether or not the powers in charge are doing something right or wrong, and the petition by scholars across the world is a perfect example of how censorship has no role in the world of academia. People may claim that a certain piece of art, literature, or an academic essay is the equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded ballet hall, but usually what they don’t know is that the crowded ballet hall is full of fire fighters in full gear and uniform, they just didn’t see it.




"If the dream is a translation of waking life, waking life is also a translation of the dream."
~ Rene Magritte