India's former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee in one of his speeches quoted a line from the Sanskrit play Mṛcchakatika and said, "Na bhīto maran̥ādasmin kevalam dūs̃itam yas̃aha”, meaning, “I am not afraid of death, I am afraid of infamy and slander."
Even though he wrongly attributed the saying to Shri Ram but the crux of his point aligned with the virtues and actions of Ram’s ancestors. One famous incident is that of King Dilip when he offered himself to a lion to protect the cow of his guru, Vashishta. His rationale was that failing to protect the Cow of his Guru would bring infamy to the Ikshavaku clan, which had a great tradition of following Dharma even at the expense of their life and well-being. But it is intriguing why even such great men were concerned about slander and infamy. After all, how does it even matter what someone thinks of us and why should we care about public opinion?
Moved by an argument with a woman who questioned Shri Ram’s choices and conduct as depicted in various religious texts, India's bestselling and renowned fiction author, Amish Tripathi, decided to retell the story of Ramayana, so as to reinterpret it for today's masses by writing his “Ramachandra series”. The idea is well-intended but the consequences may well be disastrous, for the author makes no bones about reinterpreting the text, betraying a disregard for the prescribed hermeneutics embedded in the original texts themselves.
Indeed, as we study and analyse the contents of the first book of the series titled ‘Scion of Ikshvaku’, it is easy to see that the creative liberties taken by the author have changed the original narrative of the epic to the extent of qualifying it as distortion. I mention here only a few representative instances in the interest of brevity.
The story begins with the introduction of Dashrath as the king of Sapta Sindhu who is fighting a war with Kubera, the trader king of Lanka. Kubera wants to negotiate the commission margin with Dashrath, who in his arrogance of being a Kshatriya and harbouring a deep-seated disdain for 'Vaishyas' as the latter “lack class”, rejects Kubera's offer and engages in a war with him. His prejudice against Vaishyas, we are told, comes from the aristocratic mindset of Sapta Sindhu royalty, which recognises only warriors and intellectuals to be worthy subjects. The failure of the talks leads to a bloody battle in which Dashrath's army is squarely defeated by Kubera's General, Ravana. The very same day, a son is born to Dashrath's first wife, Kaushalya. He is named Ram. His father blames him for the humiliating defeat in war and attaches the stigma of inauspiciousness on the newly born, declaring, “Ram was born with bad karma and his birth was the undoing of the noble lineage of Raghu.” Kaikeyi is shown to be conspiring against Ram from the beginning as she wants her biological son, Bharat, to ascend the throne. Therefore, her coterie propagates a narrative of Ram’s inauspiciousness among the citizens.
Whereas Amish portrays Dashrath as a pompous, arrogant and aristocratic king who has contempt for merchants, as well as a woolly-headed father who blames his newly born son for his defeat, Valmiki has called Dashrath dīrghadarśi (foreseer), rājarśih (kingly sage) and satyābhisam̥dhena (truth-abiding) king. In the narrative of Valmiki’s Ramayana, King Dashrath protects his subjects and dedicates his life to their welfare, furthering the great tradition of his noble ancestors, Ikshvaku, Dilip, Raghu etc. Dashrath conducts the Putrakameshti yajna, the fruit of which is that he is blessed with four sons. Bhagwan Vishnu himself refers to Dashrath as mahādyutih (great resplendent one) and arisūdanah (enemy subduer), while choosing to incarnate as his son.
In the modernist rendition of Amish Tripathi, Bharat is seven months younger than Ram. He is a pragmatic person as opposed to Ram, who is too idealistic. The former disagrees with Ram's approach to almost everything under the sun. He considers the law, presumably alluding to Dharma, to be a mere tool in the service of greater ambitions. Amish adds some colour to Bharat’s personality as he writes, "At the age of sixteen, Bharat had discovered the pleasures of love. Charismatic and flamboyant as he was, girls liked Bharat as much as he liked them." Bharat introduces Ram to his fifth girlfriend whom he wants to marry by breaking the suffocating customs of her community, a prospect that does not get Ram’s unambiguous approval.
Quite in contrast, Valmiki’s Bharat embodies all merits (sarvaiha gunaiha samudito) and whose truthfulness itself is his valour (satyaparākramah). Like Hanuman, Bharat is considered to be an ideal devotee of Ram, one who has complete mastery over the sense organs and is thus free from worldly illusion.
During a conversation between Ram and Vashishtha in Amish's retelling, Ram says “Sometimes I wonder if my people are even worth fighting for”.
Ram abandoning his people even in thought is Ram abandoning Dharma and giving up the sole purpose of his incarnation. He is the one in whom all beings seek refuge. Valmiki's Ram says,
sakr̥d eva prapannāya tava asmi iti c̥ yāc̥ate abhayam sarva bhūtebhyo dadāmi etad vratam mama
"He who seeks refuge in me just once, telling me that 'I am yours', I shall give him assurance of safety against all types of beings. This is my solemn pledge."
The very idea of Rama Rajya entails an unbending commitment on the part of Shri Ram to serve his people and protect them from all sorts of woes. As Shri Ram says, 'a warrior handles a bow so that misery's tears cease to flow...'
Other problematic ideas
Amish’s Ram and Sita are discussing what an ideal society would look like. Sita proposes,
"All the children of a kingdom must be compulsorily adopted by the state at the time of birth. At the age of fifteen, they would appear for an examination that would test them on their physical, psychological, and mental skills. Based on the result, appropriate castes would be allocated to the children. The children would never know their birth-parents, only their caste-parents."
In our Itihasa-Purana, instances of snatching infants from their parents are associated with Rakshasas like Kansa. To have this diabolical idea expressed through the person of Sita would be unthinkable for anyone familiar with her character in Valmiki’s Ramayana. But what about the idea itself? It would be interesting to find out if an average reader of Amish would approve of this plan, were it proposed by a political party he/she likes. Going by the cheering among certain sections for totalitarian schemes like increasing the legal age of marriage for females in the face of ever-decreasing fertility rates among Hindus, it would not be far-fetched to assume that such dangerous ideas have wide acceptance among people who self-identify as the Indian Right. It is ironic that while conservative values anywhere in the world are fiercely protective of the institution of family, a section of the so-called Indian Right aligns with the far left in this regard. This is not to claim that Amish’s readers identify as conservatives but that even self-declared conservatives in India have a rather nebulous idea of the values they stand for. This, I believe, is a significant factor in the dazzling success of the author.
Moving on, the book conflates 'Rule of Law' and 'Dharma'. The author makes a rather contentious claim that Ram is maryada purushottama because he follows the rule of law, implying that anyone who respects the law in this day and age automatically follows the footsteps of the scion of Ikshvaku. However, there is a catch here. For the author’s claim to be valid, today’s jurisprudence must be based uncompromisingly on Dharmic principles. If the basis of law is Adharmic then following such law is not Dharma by any measure and emulating Ram may actually translate to breaking the law in certain circumstances, just as Ram himself did when he followed his 'varna dharma' and killed Vali during his sojourn in Kishkinda.
The root of such faulty characterisation is the historicisation of Ram, stripping off all divinity in this modernist portrayal. Amish writes,
"‘Vishnu’ was a title given to the greatest of leaders who were remembered as the Propagators of Good. The sixth man to have achieved this title was Lord Parshu Ram. That is how he was remembered by the common folk."
There is mention of Ram as some sort of contender for the 'title of Vishnu', reducing the supreme being, who incarnated as Dashrath's son to liberate the Earth from the tyranny of Ravana and reinstate Dharma, to a mere title that men compete for.
But it is not even about Ram
Amish’s fans and defenders of his Freedom of Expression are wont to say that in historicising the characters of the epics, the author has broken away from the tradition already and is free to depict these characters in any manner he likes. But there are two major lacunae in this argument.
One, Amish was self-admittedly motivated to write this series because:
"I would like to look at [Rama] holistically and completely. Practically all Indians love and respect him for what is known as 'Rama Rajya', but I wonder how many people would have actually thought through what 'Rama Rajya' is. That is the thing I want to write about and how he built that society... Through Lord Ram, we might learn that it is cool to follow rules. And that is something I think modern Indians might need to learn."
It is honestly not pleasant to remark here that Amish’s conception of Ram Rajya is light years away from how Valmiki has described it and it may indeed be better for people to not understand the idea as opposed to misapprehending it, thereby gaining an unhealthy amount of confidence in the compatibility of their modernist beliefs with Dharma.
Secondly, having steered away from needless pontification on important matters unlike his more confrontational contemporary, Devdutt Pattanaik, Amish has often aligned openly with India’s civilisational identity and is thus considered a friend of Dharma. The downside of this positioning is that his work is often handled with kid gloves by the same people who ridicule and bitterly criticise Pattanaik’s questionable depiction of civilisational icons. This makes for an obvious case of double standards, which leaves the literary space prone to political influence and arbitrary intervention, leaving absolutely no room for a principled stand. In a similar vein, if Vijay Tendulkar is reviled for the misrepresentation of Nana Fadnavis in his play Ghashiram Kotwal, and rightly so, why is criticism of Amish deemed to be politically incorrect?
What about Goswami Tulsidas?
To be sure, Amish is not the first writer to take creative liberties when it comes to narrating the story of Ram. From Kalidas to Tulsidas to Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, all of them have given the words of the epic wings of their own. For example, there is a significant difference between the original story of Sita’s swayamwar and how Tulsidas narrates it. But it must be noted that when Kalidasa, Goswami Tulsidas, Nirala and many others take liberties, they do so with elements of the story that do not have a bearing either on the coherence of the narrative or the centrality of the virtues on which the narrative is built.
Valmiki describes the significance of the epic as Vedopabr̂m̥han̥ārthāya, which means that it is composed only to reinforce the import of Veda-s, as an ancillary. Hence any portion or retelling of the legend of Ramayan, which deviates from the Vedic principles, needs to be discarded. Valmiki also describes the epic as Sītāyās̥c̥aritam mahat (Sita's sublime legend). Accordingly, Sita's conduct is the primary aspect and Ravana's elimination is only peripheral. It goes without saying that ‘Scion of Ikshvaku’ fails to meet any of these conditions. While the author is well within his right to use characters from the epics in a fictional work of this kind, it is also his duty to make it abundantly clear that his characters have no correspondence with their divine namesakes. Unfortunately, as is clear from his statements quoted in this article, he does precisely the opposite. That must be called out.
This leaves us with a nagging point to ponder upon, which may well be irresolvable for the moment. How should Hindu society guard its sacred narratives from corruption in the information age? Calling for bans on books has never been a part of our tradition but discouraging misrepresentations through reasonable means is certainly desirable. It is in these matters that Hindu society truly lacks an institutional response and it is left to individuals to correct the distortions in popular imagination created by irresponsible works of fiction. The standard argument that urges people to try writing a more popular work to counter the ill-effects of a best-seller is misguided on several counts as is the complacent call to ignore such trends. Perhaps the best way forward would be to open a dialogue in good faith with the authors of such works or at least those who endorse them. That is exactly what this article intends to do. Perhaps more people can pitch in without resorting to ad hominems?