Most academicians at Delhi University are feeling betrayed by their own fraternity, the reason — the Academic Council's recent decision to drop from the history syllabus a celebrated essay by the late scholar and linguist A. K. Ramanujan on the Ramayana, despite intense opposition from the history department.
The essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translations,” which forms part of the B.A. History (Honours) course, had attracted the ire of Hindutva activists because it talks about 300 different versions of the Ramayana that abound in our country and beyond. And when the decision to scrap the course was put to vote at the Academic Council meeting this past Sunday, only nine of the 120 members present dissented.
“This is definitely not an academic decision but a glaring example of an academic institution succumbing to pressure from the Right wing. The council has severely compromised on its standards and has conveyed to our students the message that only the ideology that is supported by the majority will be accepted,” said AC member Rakesh Kumar, who was one among the nine to express a dissenting opinion against scrapping of the essay.
His opinion is echoed by the present department head, Prof. R.C. Thakran. “This essay is rich in academic content and there have been two resolutions in the past in which the history department unanimously agreed that as far as history as a subject is concerned, this piece is important for our students. But the resolution of the AC is binding and we cannot really do anything further about this.”
A writ petition had been filed in the High Court on the grounds that the essay hurt religious sentiments. The matter was then taken up by the Supreme Court, which directed the university to seek the opinion of experts and place it before the Academic Council. “The names of the expert team were kept confidential, three of the four members were happy with the essay but the fourth member expressed an opinion that second year students may find it difficult. Nothing religiously offensive was found by these experts,” said Prof. Renu Bala, another dissenting AC member. “There was no need to even ask for a vote. The essay should have been kept on its academic merit. Our culture is diverse and so are our legends. We give these students the right to vote when they turn 18, so why not the right to think,” she asked.
In 2008, activists from the BJP-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad barged into the history department to protest the teaching of the Ramanujan text and vandalised the place, forcing the then department head, Prof. S.Z.H. Jafri, to hide in his own office. “What is the value of my opinion? When the Academic Council has passed this resolution, the history department has no choice,” he rued.
Meanwhile, academics are incensed with the manner in which the essay was scrapped. “They had no regard for the report of the expert committee, the history department's views or the arguments put forth by the dissenting members. The Vice-Chancellor just told the AC that the essay should be deleted in the interests of the university and they voted in his favour. This decision conveys to our students that there is no space for dissenting voices,” said Executive Council member, Abha Dev Habib, who had, as an Academic Council member in 2008, been among those who had supported the continuation of the essay despite the controversy surrounding it.
“We are disappointed with the Vice-Chancellor, who despite being an academic has indulged in such a regressive act. By removing such texts, a sort of fascism is being encouraged, no educationist will be happy with such a decision.”
University officials, however, state that the entire matter is a non-issue and that the whole matter was taken up for hearing by the AC only because they had to provide an answer to the Supreme Court. “The essay says things like Ravana was Sita's father and that Rama and Sita were siblings, so obviously we don't want to teach such things to our students,” said a university official not wishing to be named.
Historians and writers ridicule this argument. “It is a matter of deep shame for all of us that A.K. Ramanujan's great essay on the Ramayana is banned by the Central University of Delhi,” Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy told The Hindu. “Even the most orthodox of our scholars who admire Valmiki's Ramayana are still aware of many versions of the Ramayana that exist along with it. Even Valmiki's Ramayana has different readings in the country.”
Kannada writer Chandrashekhar Kambar, the winner of this year's Jnanpith award, said: “The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are texts which have been re-created many times over by several cultures in India and outside. Intolerance shown towards a scholarly study of these versions should be condemned by the entire academic fraternity.” Prof. Ananthamurthy added: “India has always made a distinction between Shruti, Smriti and Purana. There are different Shrutis for different believers, which remain mostly unchanged like the Vedas, the Koran and other scriptures. On the other hand, Smritis and Puranas are dynamic and change with time and culture. And great poets like Bhasa took the liberty of resolving the entire problem of Mahabharata without a war. It is strange that religious beliefs and practices are being commercialised and vulgarised in the modern world. We have given up the celebration of diversities of beliefs that our ancestors practiced. The banning of Ramanujan's essay on the Ramayana is an insult to the imagination of the Jains, Buddhists and several folk practices.”
(With inputs from our Bangalore bureau)
Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan (16 March 1929 – 13 July 1993) also known as A. K. Ramanujam was an Indianpoet and scholar of Indian literature who wrote in both English and Kannada. Ramanujan was a poet, scholar, a philologist, folklorist, translator, and playwright. His academic research ranged across five languages: English, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit. He published works on both classical and modern variants of this literature and argued strongly for giving local, non-standard dialects their due. Though he wrote widely and in a number of genres, Ramanujan's poems are remembered as enigmatic works of startling originality, sophistication and moving artistry. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award posthumously in 1999 for his collection of poems, The Collected Poems.
Ramanujan was born in Mysore City on 16 March 1929. His father, Attipat Asuri Krishnaswami, an astronomer and professor of mathematics at Mysore University, was known for his interest in English, Kannada and Sanskrit languages. His mother was a homemaker. Ramanujan also has a brother, A.K. Srinivasan who was a writer and a mathematician.
Ramanujan was educated at Marimallappa's High School, Mysore, and at the Maharaja College of Mysore. In college, Ramanujan majored in science in his freshman year, but his father, who thought him 'not mathematically minded', persuaded him to change his major from science to English. Later, Ramanujan became a Fellow of Deccan College, Pune in 1958–59 and a Fulbright Scholar at Indiana University in 1959–62. He was educated in English at the University of Mysore and received his PhD in Linguistics from Indiana University.
Ramanujan worked as a lecturer of English at Quilon and Belgaum; he later taught at The Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda for about eight years. In 1962, he joined the University of Chicago as an assistant professor. He was affiliated with the university throughout his career, teaching in several departments. He taught at other US universities as well, including Harvard University, University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, University of California at Berkeley, and Carleton College. At the University of Chicago, Ramanujan was instrumental in shaping the South Asian Studies program. He worked in the departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, Linguistics, and with the Committee on Social Thought.
In 1976, the Government of India awarded him the Padma Shri, and in 1983, he was given the MacArthur Prize Fellowship (Shulman, 1994). In 1983, he was appointed the William E. Colvin Professor in the Departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, of Linguistics, and in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and the same year, he received a MacArthur Fellowship. As an Indo-American writer Ramanujan had the experience of the native as well as of the foreign milieu. His poems such as the "Conventions of Despair" reflected his views on the cultures and conventions of the east and the west.
A. K. Ramanujan died in Chicago, on 13 July 1993 as result of adverse reaction to anaesthesia during preparation for surgery.
Contributions to Indian subcontinent studies
A. K. Ramanujan's theoretical and aesthetic contributions span several disciplinary areas. In his cultural essays such as "Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?" (1990), he explains cultural ideologies and behavioral manifestations thereof in terms of an Indian psychology he calls "context-sensitive" thinking. In his work in folklore studies, Ramanujan highlights the inter-textuality of the Indian oral and written literary tradition. His essay "Where Mirrors Are Windows: Toward an Anthology of Reflections" (1989), and his commentaries in The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (1967) and Folktales from India, Oral Tales from Twenty Indian Languages (1991) are good examples of his work in Indian folklore studies.
Controversy regarding his essay
His 1991 essay "Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation" courted controversy over its inclusion in the B.A. in History syllabus of the University of Delhi in 2006. In this essay, he wrote of the existence of many versions of Ramayana and a few versions that portrayed Rama and Sita as siblings, which contradicts the popular versions of the Ramayana, such as those by Valmiki and Tulsidas.
The comments written by A K Ramanujam were found to be derogatory by some Hindus and some of them decided to go to court for removal of the text from the Delhi University curriculum. ABVP, a nationalist student organisation opposed its inclusion in the syllabus, saying it hurt the majority Hindu sentiment, who viewed Rama and Sita as incarnations of gods and who were husband and wife. They demanded the essay be removed from the syllabus. In 2008, the Delhi High Court directed Delhi University to convene a committee to decide on the essay's inclusion. A four-member committee subsequently gave its 3-1 verdict in favor of its inclusion in the syllabus.
The academic council however, ignored the committee's recommendation and voted to scrap the essay from its syllabus in Oct 2011. This led to protests by many historians and intellectuals, accusing Delhi University of succumbing to the diktat ("views") of non-historians.
His works include translations from Old Tamil and Old Kannada, such as:
- Translations and Studies of Literature
- The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology, 1967
- Speaking of Siva, Penguin. 1973. ISBN 9780140442700.
- The Literatures of India. Edited with Edwin Gerow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974
- Hymns for the Drowning, 1981
- Poems of Love and War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985
- Folktales from India, Oral Tales from Twenty Indian Languages, 1991
- Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? in India Through Hindu Categories, edited by McKim Marriott, 1990
- When God Is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others (with Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman), 1994
- A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India, 1997
- Poetry, Fiction and Drama
- Hokkulalli Huvilla (translated to English - "No Flower in the Navel"). Dharwad, 1969
- Mattu Itara Padyagalu (translated to English - "And Other Poems"). Dharwad, 1977
- Kuntobille (translated to English - "Hopscotch")
- Mattobbana Atma Charitre (translated to English - "Yet Another Man's Autobiography")
- Haladi Meenu (Kannada Translation of Shouri's English Novel)
- A. K. Ramanujan Samagra (Complete Works of A. K. Ramanujan in Kannada)
- A. K. Ramanujan Avara Aayda Kavitegalu
- A. K. Ramanujan Avara Aayda Barahagalu
- 300 Ramayanas