“It is a singular and as yet unexplained phenomenon in the psychology of mankind that out of so many magnificent civilisations, so many powerful, cultured and vigorous nations and empires whose names and deeds crowd the pages of history, only a select few have been able to develop a thoroughly original and self-revealing literature. Still fewer have succeeded in maintaining these characteristics from beginning to end of their literary development….
“…the Hindus have revealed themselves the most perfectly, continuously and on the most colossal scale, precisely because they have been the most indomitably original in the form and matter of their literature. The Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas are unique in their kind; the great Epics in their form and type of art stand apart in the epic literature of the world, the old Sanscrit [sic] drama has its affinities with a dramatic species which developed itself in Europe more than a thousand years later, and the literary epic follows laws of form and canons of art which are purely indigenous. And this immense body of firstrate work has left us so intimate and complete a revelation of national life & history, that the absence of pure historical writings becomes a subject of merely conventional regret.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 1, pp. 146-147)
In his writings on Indian literature, Sri Aurobindo explains that the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are works of a high poetic soul and inspired intelligence, unlike a directly intuitive mind which created the Veda and the Upanishads.
In fact, the Indian word ‘itihāsa’ was used to distinguish the Ramayana and the Mahabharata from the later literary epics, because this word itihāsa refers to an ancient historical or legendary tradition “turned to creative use as a significant mythus or tale expressive of some spiritual or religious or ethical or ideal meaning and thus formative of the mind of the people” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 345). The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are itihāsa-s of this kind on a large scale and with a massive purpose.
Of the Ramayana’s place in Indian consciousness, Sri Aurobindo wrote:
“The Ramayana embodied for the Indian imagination its highest and tenderest human ideals of character, made strength and courage and gentleness and purity and fidelity and self-sacrifice familiar to it in the suavest and most harmonious forms coloured so as to attract the emotion and the aesthetic sense, stripped morals of all repellent austerity on one side or on the other of mere commonness and lent a certain high divineness to the ordinary things of life, conjugal and filial and maternal and fraternal feeling, the duty of the prince and leader and the loyalty of follower and subject, the greatness of the great and the truth and worth of the simple, toning things ethical to the beauty of a more psychical meaning by the glow of its ideal hues. The work of Valmiki has been an agent of almost incalculable power in the moulding of the cultural mind of India” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 350)
For thousands of years, Ramayana has been a living literary and cultural tradition of our land; in fact, it also went beyond the land of Bhārat and captured the cultural imagination of many other parts of South-east Asia. The various re-tellings of Ramayana across India in different languages helped unite the Indian collective consciousness in an organic and deeper way.
The living and breathing Indian religio-spiritual cultural context to this day witnesses thriving traditions of Ram-kathā and Ramlīla in various parts of the country, especially during the holy days of Navaratri. Indians have been reciting, listening to or watching enactments of Ram-kathā for thousands of years; and these traditions not only continue to thrive but with the advent of online technologies we are also witnessing newer forms of retelling of the stories of Ramayana.
Ramlīla as an important folk theatrical tradition of India is believed to have originated in northern India in the 16th century. This was after Sant Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas written in Avadhi language brought a fresh wave of devotional spirit in northern India and captured the collective mind of people through its portrayal of the ideal of Maryada Purushottama Ram. However, a tradition of Ramayana-based performance already existed in the form of public recitations of Valmiki’s Ramayana in Sanskrit. But it was after 1625 CE, dramatized adaptations of Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas began to catch on, under the influence of Tulsidas’ student Megha Bhagat.
In many parts of northern India, as part of the annual celebration of Dussehra, Ramlīla-s are typically performed as a cycle of episodes over the course of several nights of the Navaratri. In some cases, professional troupes are contracted to perform for a village or community. The traditional Ramlīla was recognised by UNESCO in 2005 as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
With the coming of Navaratri and Dussehra I am often reminded of my growing up years in Delhi when I enjoyed the Ramlīla in our neighbourhood. But more than that neighbourhood Ramlīla, I look back fondly at the famous Ramlīla performance at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. The Kendra has been organising and staging the theatrical performance of Ramlīla for more than 60 years. For many years now, the show is simply called ‘श्रीRam’.
The Kendra in Delhi has done a great service to theatre arts in India by continuously staging a spectacular dance drama based on Ramlīla every year during Navaratri. While the neighbourhood Ramlīla tradition in cities such as Delhi may be fast disappearing or losing their appeal (though where I grew up the local Ramlīla committee is still going strong and the show grander every year), this one grand show titled ‘श्रीRam’ at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra has not only been thriving but gaining wider appeal, offering a wonderful mix of various theatre arts and value-based entertainment to those interested. The 3-hour show is repeated on all the nine evenings of Navaratri. For the last many years they have incorporated wonderful use of technology in the whole show. I have had the privilege of attending the performance several times, last time I was there was in 2014.
The increasing popularity of the Kendra’s show ‘श्रीRam’ over the last 60 years is an important example of how a cultural tradition which continues to offer real value to people through its uplifting and elevating spirit and essence can be easily renewed in its outer forms and yet enthrall the changing aesthetic preferences over time, provided there are people devoted to the true spirit or core of what the tradition represents in the first place.
Shobha Deepak Singh, the person in-charge of keeping the Ramlīla tradition alive and thriving at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, comes from a strong family background which had Ram-bhakti at its center. She has been on record saying that she has been reading Ramayana every day for the last 50 years; for her Ramayana is not a mythology but a ‘way of life.’ She has imbibed the spirit of what the charitra of Ram means for herself and the larger humanity. She has said in her interviews that while the outer form of the Ramlīla show at the Kendra has evolved over the years, she is committed to portraying the essential spirit of Maryada Purushottama Ram through the show.
Same can be said for Ramanand Sagar, the producer-director of TV Ramayana in 1980s, which was another modern variation of the old Ramlīla tradition. He too had been a sincere devotee of Sri Ram and it was his deep love for Ram that came through his mega production of the TV serial which went on to change the history of television in India. The recent records made by the TV show once again prove that the force of such value-based and culturally rooted theatrical traditions still goes on strong in the collective mind of Indians.
The continued popularity of the dance drama ‘श्रीRam’ of Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra and phenomenal success stories like the TV Ramayana don’t just happen merely because of effective advertising and marketing power behind these mega productions. Or merely because of the rampant commercialisation of all things including religion, though that is also true of our times. Or merely because of the growing display of outer religiosity in the contemporary social-cultural-political fabric of India.
The real and deeper reason lays hidden behind the outer phenomenon. There is always some drop of timeless truth working from behind which makes such phenomena happen. And that truth is the Truth of Ram.
“[Rama’s] business was to destroy Ravana and to establish the Rama-rajya – in other words, to fix for the future the possibility of an order proper to the sattwic civilised human being who governs his life by the reason, the finer emotions, morality, or at least moral ideals, such as truth, obedience, co-operation and harmony, the sense of domestic and public order, – to establish this in a world still occupied by anarchic forces, the Animal mind and the powers of the vital Ego making its own satisfaction the rule of life, in other words, the Vanara and Rakshasa. ….It was not his business to be necessarily a perfect, but a largely representative sattwic man, a faithful husband and a lover, a loving and obedient son, a tender and perfect brother, father, friend – he is friend of all kinds of people, friend of the outcaste Guhaka, friend of the Animal leaders, Sugriva, Hanuman, friend of the vulture Jatayu, friend even of the Rakshasa Vibhishan. All that he was in a brilliant, striking but above all spontaneous and inevitable way, not with a forcing of this note or that…., but with a certain harmonious completeness. But most of all, it was his business to typify and establish the things on which the social idea and its stability depend, truth and honour, the sense of Dharma, public spirit and the sense of order. To the first, to truth and honour, much more even than to his filial love and obedience to his father—though to that also—he sacrificed his personal rights as the elect of the King and the Assembly and fourteen of the best years of his life and went into exile in the forests. To his public spirit and his sense of public order (the great and supreme civic virtue in the eyes of the ancient Indians, Greeks, Romans, for at that time the maintenance of the ordered community, not the separate development and satisfaction of the individual was the pressing need of human evolution) he sacrificed his own happiness and domestic life and the happiness of Sita. In that he was at one with the moral sense of all the antique races, though at variance with the later romantic individualistic sentimental morality of the modern man who can afford to have that less stern morality just because the ancients sacrificed the individual in order to make the world safe for the spirit of social order. Finally, it was Rama’s business to make the world safe for the ideal of the sattwic human being by destroying the sovereignty of Ravana, the Rakshasa menace.” (CWSA, Vol. 28, p. 491-492)
These words of Sri Aurobindo help us more clearly understand the Truth of Ram and the work for which he descended on earth, the true role his Avatarhood plays in the planetary evolution of consciousness. Through his life’s work, through his life’s example he worked tirelessly to establish the supremacy of ethical-aesthetic-moral mental consciousness over the physical and the vitalistic. Following his swadharma, kula-dharma, jāti dharma, and dharma of his time and age, he worked to establish a society based on the ideal of Dharma. That is why he continues to remain relevant for today, tomorrow and for times to come.
“[Rama’s] figure has been stamped for more than two millenniums on the mind of Indian culture and what he stood for has dominated the reason and idealising mind of man in all countries—and in spite of the constant revolt of the human vital is likely to continue to do so until a greater Ideal arises” (CWSA, Vol. 28, p. 492).
This year, Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra has done a great service for the devotees and lovers of Lord Ram by making available on YouTube the entire dance-drama ‘श्रीRam’ for the duration of one month. What better day than Dussehra to watch the show and immerse yourself in the love for Ram, love of Ram!
Jai Siya Ram! Jai Sri Ram!