2. The Essay's Accomplishments

2.1 Introduction

The purpose of directly addressing what the article does and does not say is twofold. On the one hand, this will act as a corrective to many accusations made against the article in the highly emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the court case and the article's subsequent removal from the Department of History syllabus at Delhi University. In the weeks and months following these events, the accusations were passed along by word of mouth and on the internet while access to the article itself was extremely limited, not least of all by OUP's decision to let the various books in which it appears go out of print. Thus, many readers' only access to Prof. Ramanujan's article were short excerpts in news coverage of the controversy, which made frequent reference to aspects in which alternate tellings of the Rāmāyaṇa differed from that of Valmiki, particularly versions in which Sita was Ravana's daughter. Unfortunately, the references in these news articles extracted such aspects entirely divorced from their wider context in Prof. Ramanujan's article and often neglected to adequately explain the nuanced way Prof. Ramanujan puts these alternate tellings to use in illustrating one approach to the critical analysis of texts. In many ways, this indirectly led to the sensationalization of the article under conditions in which the article could not speak for itself. It is hoped that the present section will more fully lay out for those who have not read the article an accurate picture of its contents and the larger structure into which they are arranged. Secondly, by examining what the article does and does not say, we will be able to more fully appreciate Prof. Ramanujan's contribution to critical reading and analysis of texts in historical studies of their development and their cultural provenance, but also their enduring power as narratives.

2.2 What the Essay Does

  • The essay elegantly weaves the five tellings into a defense for assertions later. All the while, it does posit that the Valmiki telling has had additions, revisions, and possibly deletions already from its inception and it does offer a kind of compounding theory of the Rāmāyaṇawith every other version being a meta-Rāmāyaṇa, building up a different telling from previous knowledge of another telling;
  • The essay seeks to introduce a way of doing history and seeks to convey an instance of use of a literary analysis method that looks at ancient texts;
  • The essay does state that almost any work contains the three elements of transplantation, translation, transliteration, namely, those of indexical, iconic and symbolic translation.

2.3 What the Essay Does Not Do

The article does not set out to offend Hindus;

While this assertion may seem straightforward enough, an examination of some of the accusations made against the article by members of right-wing Hindu groups will reveal how important it is to give a detailed defense of the fact that nowhere in "Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas" does Prof. Ramanujan make any pronouncement for or against Hindu religious practice and religious expression, and, as such, in no way sets out to insult Hindus in presenting cases of variant tellings of the Rāmāyaṇa.

One accusation made by Delhi state secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) Rohit Chahal, as reported in Daily News and Analysis, is that Prof. Ramanujan chose the examples given as evidence in his article with the specific mindset of injuring Hindu religious sensibilities: "There are 300 versions of the Rāmāyaṇa, but Prof. Ramanujan chooses to quote five examples that are bound to hurt our sentiments. They want students to learn about those five." [1] While Chahal does not point out which five examples he's referring to (Prof. Ramanujan makes direct reference to at least 10 different tellings), we might take the example of the two versions of the Ahalya story, one in in Valmiki's Sanskrit version, one in Kampan's Tamil version. While both versions contain elements which could be considered bawdy, both versions are well attested in Hindu tradition; the story of Indra disguising himself as the sage Gautama to sleep with Gautama's wife Ahalya is widely known. Furthermore, Prof. Ramanujan does not make much of the bawdy elements or highlight them; if anything, he only mentions them in passing. The main purpose of juxtaposing the two versions is to show how South Indian motifs are worked into the frame story and how elements of the frame story are carefully rearranged, giving it a different flavor and subtly changing the ways in which the characters relate to each other, thus making the story uniquely South Indian. Therefore, to fixate on aspects that are bawdy (aspects that, it must be said, have long been part of Hindu tradition) would be to misconstrue Prof. Ramanujan's objectives in the article and miss the point completely.

A further accusation made by an anonymous senior BJP leader to Tehelka finds the mention of any alternate version of the Rāmāyaṇa which differs from Valmiki's to be offensive: "Our party and its ideology over the past 25 years have been built on the values imbibed in the original (Valmiki) Rāmāyaṇa, which has the most number of followers than of any other version. It is hurtful to devout Hindus if the story is said in any other way...No matter what the essay says, it is wrong to question the authenticity of Valmiki’s Rāmāyaṇa. We should focus our history (learnings) on the deep values imbibed in it." [2] It is not that Prof. Ramanujan chooses only seemingly offensive examples, as in Chahal's complaint. Here, it is the very mention of any other version even existing, let alone 5, 10, or 300. Prof. Ramanujan does not question the "authenticity" of Valmiki's Rāmāyaṇa, whatever authenticity may mean here. In fact, he recognizes that Valmiki's version is the most prestigious of all tellings -- that point is nowhere controverted and stands as a fact in the article. Prof. Ramanujan likewise recognizes that there are "minor" and "major" tellings of the Rāmāyaṇa story. No one would argue that, say, a minor Tibetan version of the Rāmāyaṇa story has had as much of an historical impact as Valmiki's. What he does do, however, is to give each telling an equal voice and equal time in his article for the sake of analyzing them in relation to each other. To do otherwise would obscure important historical conclusions which can be drawn with respect to how the Rāmāyaṇa story has traveled and has been adapted by different communities and different cultures. If offense is taken to this, then what else is offensive but the very practice of historical analysis itself? How are we to gain knowledge, wisdom and awareness if we are barred from inquiring into the past because some of it may just happen to be offensive to some? (see more scholarly questions)


  • The essay does not seek to be a chief representative for the five stories featured, i.e. does not take itself seriously with them, but simply relegates them as instances to support Prof. Ramanujan's thesis. In addition, it does not elevate the Rāmāyaṇa by Valmiki to a paramount position, nor does it seek to offend any tellings of the story since they are simply presented as tellings and not critiques;
  • The essay does not give paramount credence to the story's religious roots, but treats it simply as a historical fact equal to all the other facts like poetic tradition, customs, culture, etc and uses it purely for contextual reasons to affirm or deny arguments Prof. Ramanujan makes.