The Ramayana: Through Religious or Literary Lenses?
story | Ambika Madan
photo | Kalla Sy, contributing photographer
“It is interesting that the Ramayana is now the only text in the Literature and Humanities 1 course that has religious significance for a large number of people today. That means that teaching it has to be approached in a slightly different way from the way the other texts are taught,” Professor Jane Baron Nardin, Visiting Senior Fellow of Humanities (English Literature) at Yale-NUS College, said.
Often, the ethics of exploring the Ramayana as a literary text instead of a religious one fall into a gray area, but I nevertheless believe that it is integral for everyone to understand the religious and cultural significance of the Ramayana before launching into discussions and debates about the epic.
The Ramayana, as every Yale-NUS student has come to know, is an epic of herculean proportions (or more aptly Kumbhkaran-esque proportions) which narrates the story of Rama and Sita and their many trials and tribulations. It touches on age-old values of dharma, filial piety, loyalty, and love.
But for many Indians, and more specifically Hindus, the Ramayana has an enormous impact on our daily lives, be it religiously, culturally or historically. For example- Diwali, one of India’s most important festivals, marks the day that Rama returned to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana. The Ramayana’s influence is so pervasive and so deeply rooted in our culture that the phrase ‘Ram Ram’ is actually a common greeting in North India. Saying “Haye Ram’ is our equivalent of saying ‘Oh my God’.
That being said, the Ramayana is a narrative that has gone beyond the borders of India. It has worldwide presence and has influenced many forms of art and culture across the globe. It has been a part of the Literature and Humanities 1 course of the Common Curriculum since the formation of Yale-NUS. It is also the very first literary text studied in the Common Curriculum.
Studying the Ramayana with knowledge of its religious implications deepens the intellectual understanding of the text as it provides the context in which the Ramayana was written. It also adds nuances to the reading of the text.
There are many varying opinions that persist among students and professors about teaching and studying the Ramayana at Yale-NUS.
Some Hindu students find some of the discussions that take place in seminars particularly insensitive primarily due to the fact that many people are unaware of the religious implications of the Ramayana. There have been instances where Rama, who is considered a God in Hinduism, has been insulted and called ‘a sexist pig’, ‘an ass’, and other such names. In passing, these comments may not seem like much, but for someone coming from a background where Rama is worshipped, these comments will perhaps be jarring and uncomfortable to hear.
In comparison, considering the increasing religious conservatism in India, being able to talk about and critique the Ramayana freely in such an open environment is refreshing for some students. Aditya Karkera ’20 said, “I’m actually enjoying studying the Ramayana in a purely academically sterilized manner, that treats my reverence or lack thereof for the text as secondary to the fact that this is an ancient document from one of the greatest cultures in the world.”
According to Professor Andrew Hui, Assistant Professor of Literature at Yale-NUS College, Yale-NUS is a secular, non-religious college and therefore does not subscribe to any confessional doctrine or tenets. As a liberal arts college, the faculty holds fast to this principle. He said, “We are firmly committed to the free expression of ideas in all forms—a central tenet of liberal arts education. There are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated. This principle is a cornerstone of our institution.”
Others have also opined that the Ramayana is not as inherently religious as the Vedas or the Upanishads, which are said to be either authorless or written by God. As the Ramayana is an epic written by a human, it is open for literary analysis.
Professor Hui also said, “One of the learning goals of Literature and Humanities is to question the preconceived notions of what ‘literature’, ‘religion’ and ’history’ are. These are categories that were invented after the production of these texts. We just really have to think hard and long about what a ‘religious’ text is.”
There has indeed been a lot of conversation amongst Yale-NUS students on this topic in the recent years. Last year, a group discussion was organized where students shared their own experiences of the Ramayana, what it meant to them and to their family, and discussed its cultural significance. This year, a similar event, ‘The Ramayana Unravelled’ was organized by ‘YNDUS’- the South Asian Society of Yale-NUS. It touched upon a myriad of topics like the Ramayana in our daily lives, Hinduism as a non-polytheistic religion, feminist and LGBTQ+ versions of the Ramayana, fantastical elements of the story, and the Indian caste system.
This event provided a direct contrast to the academically sterile classroom setting. It offered a more pluralized and diversified view of the Ramayana as different versions of the epic were discussed. Students from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal shared stories of how the Ramayana has influenced their cultures and made its impact on the other countries of the Indian subcontinent.
Ramayana is a text that refuses to be bounded; it is a living, breathing epic. Every family and every culture has their own interpretation of it. The text itself gives us opportunities to question the actions of Rama, to debate dharma and to argue over its morality. The contention here is not to do with debating and discussing the text, it is to do with the manner in which these discussions are held. With this in mind, let us approach texts like the Ramayana with a lens that captures both the literary as well as the religious and cultural aspects.
Ambika is from the Class of 2021 and comes from the vibrant city of New Delhi. She was raised in a close-knit Hindu family. Though, she is not particularly religious herself, she holds the culture and mythology close to her heart as they consist of memories of her childhood.