Tilting at mythical windmills – Ravi Shankar Etteth

Ravi Shankar Etteth

“When caricatures of Prophet Mohammed were published in European journals, Islamic reaction was violent. Cartoonists went into hiding; magazine offices were firebombed. In 1988, fatwas were issued against Salman Rushdie when he wrote The Satanic Verses. But offices of swimwear companies that print pictures of Lord Ganesh on bikinis aren’t attacked by mobs. Because Hinduism is fair game for the liberal lumpen. Will Lefties supporting Ramanujan’s essay welcome negative references to other religious texts or gods, especially in a school textbook? Will they question which Bible is genuine—the King James version or the Catholic Bible?” – Ravi Shankar Etteth

A.K. RamanujanKnowledge has many faces: learning, erudition and scholarship. Which of these categories apply to Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan, who wrote Three Hundred Ramayanas?

Dictionaries refer to ‘learning’ as knowledge gained by the “systematic study of a subject or by trial and error”. Ramanujan seems to have done that a lot: “Just a list of languages in which the Rama story is found makes one gasp: Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan—to say nothing of Western languages”. Erudition is knowledge attained through formal and extensive research, excluding mathematics and physical sciences. In Ramanujan’s words: “In this paper, indebted for its data to numerous previous translators and scholars, I would like to sort out for myself, and I hope for others, how these hundreds of tellings of a story in different cultures, languages, and religious traditions relate to each other: what gets translated, transplanted, transposed”. Scholarship is formalised learning taught in schools, “especially as actively employed by a person trying to master some field of knowledge or extend its bounds”. But if Ramanujan had to learn by rote different Ramayanas, he would still be in school.

Then there is another form of knowledge that combines all above, as abstract history—lore—knowledge about a particular subject accumulated over time, of an anecdotal and traditional nature, with literary connotations. Lore is the basis of Ramanujan’s essay.

The problem is not that he wrote it. Academics are entitled to their arcana. But, should an article on a sensitive subject based on folklore, be taught to impressionable minds as part of the history syllabus?

Ganesha image on toilet seat.No.

When caricatures of Prophet Mohammed were published in European journals, Islamic reaction was violent. Cartoonists went into hiding; magazine offices were firebombed. In 1988, fatwas were issued against Salman Rushdie when he wrote The Satanic Verses. But offices of swimwear companies that print pictures of Lord Ganesh on bikinis aren’t attacked by mobs. Because Hinduism is fair game for the liberal lumpen. Will Lefties supporting Ramanujan’s essay welcome negative references to other religious texts or gods, especially in a school textbook? Will they question which Bible is genuine—the King James version or the Catholic Bible?

A recent US study has found school textbooks in Pakistan foster prejudice and intolerance of Hindus and other religious minorities. Most Pakistani teachers also view non-Muslims as “enemies of Islam”. No Indian university don has protested. The findings have not convinced professional liberals to free the Pakistani mind of medieval hatred; especially those who constantly junket to Islamabad to plead for harmony. Romila Thapar asks hotly whether “they bash up universities in Jakarta and other places for teaching different versions of the Ramayana?” Of course not, silly girl, Indonesia is a Muslim majority nation.

On a version of the Ramayana, Ramanujan writes “Furthermore, her (Sita’s) abnormal birth as the daughter born directly to the male Ravana brings to the story a new range of suggestions: the male envy 0f womb and childbirth… and an Indian Oedipal theme of fathers pursuing daughters”. Isn’t the Oedipus complex about a son lusting after his mother? Did the Fulbright scholar really write this sentence? Or are there Three Hundred Ramanujans as well? – The New Indian Express, Chennai, 15 Nov. 2011

» Contact Ravi Shankar at ravi@newindianexpress.com

One Response

  1. I wonder with how much difficulty our ancestors must have saved this tradition for us and with what care they have handed it over to us! And why r we not bothered to feel the value of their efforts and do our bit

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