SASTRI ON THE RAMAYANA
By K. Savitri Ammal
WHEN it was announced in the beginning of the year 1944 that the late Rt. Hon’ble V. S. Srinivasa Sastri would deliver a series of weekly lectures on the Ramayana under the auspices of the Samskrit Academy many people who knew him well were not a little surprised. For though Mr. Sastri was all admiration for Valmiki and considered the Ramayana as the greatest epic in the world, yet he kept his admiration to himself and was hardly inclined to give utterance to it in public. There were also a few who feared that his irreverent attitude towards the poem will make him unnecessarily critical, dwelling on the many seeming inconsistencies of the epic. Indeed, he was known to have stated on one occasion when he was asked to preside over the yearly celebration of the Poet’s Day at the Academy that he was hardly fitted to address an audience consisting mostly of people who were liable to break down with emotion at the mere mention of the name Sri Rama. He could not but entertain some contempt for those who treated the Ramayana with unbounded reverence from sheer convention rather than from any conviction born of their own personal study of the great character of Sri Rama.
None who attended the lectures could ever forget what an intellectual treat it was to hear him every week for a period of eight months without a break and how one could hardly help a feeling of regret that the beautiful lectures came to a close. People came to hear him in large numbers from all parts of the city. The audience grew larger and larger until the number swelled to thousands. Men and women sat for more than an hour and a half every week in silent rapture as if they listened to the soft strains of some heavenly music. Scarcely a murmur could be heard in the vast crowd as one and all fell under the charm of the magnetic personality of the distinguished lecturer. So, as the weeks rolled on even those “who came to scoff remained to pray.”
It is certain Mr. Sastri must have prepared carefully before every lecture. But he came scarcely provided with any notes. He took his seat and just went on in his clear ringing voice never pausing for a word or an idea. He placed before the audience his remarkable analysis of the leading characters and the many incidents in the Ramayana, not omitting the most trivial detail, seeking to divine the hidden meaning of the poet and yet taking care to preserve the spirit of the text.
It is an exceedingly happy thing that the people did not rest contented with merely listening to those brilliant discourses. The special arrangements made by the Academy for taking shorthand reports rendered it possible to publish them eventually in book-form. The present volume contains the thirty lectures which the Rt. Hon’ble Sastri delivered in a frame of mind full of piety and deep reverence for our immortal epic as those who heard him could well testify. With that disarming humility he begins the series of lectures, stating in the first place his sense of utter diffidence for the talk he has undertaken, in the second, the nature of the audience that he has, which frightens him out of his wits, and lastly the exalted nature of the subject-matter upon which it is difficult even for the most original minds to say anything like what may be new. “He confessed at the outset that he was going to deal with Sri Rama as purely human and not as a God. The emotional breakdowns which were witnessed, however, on occasions when he dwelt on the loftiness of Sri Rama’s character, plainly showed that he certainly did not lack “the reverence that is of the substance of religion.”
“It appears to me,” he says “that there is a way of studying the Ramayana with reverence, with adoration of the great qualities of the hero and heroine and with full appreciation of the unparalleled influence that it has exerted in ages past and will exert for ages to come on the lives and characters of our people.” By holding the view that Valmiki presented his hero as essentially human, that he was not so perfect and that though he possessed the greatest and the noblest qualities in the world, yet he was not quite free from the failings and limitations of ordinary human beings, the lecturer must have offended those who like to believe that Sri Rama was an Avatar and accordingly everything he did must be viewed in the light of his Godhead. How are we then to account for those passages in the epic which go to show unmistakably that Sri Rama in spite of his divine nature was at times swayed by feelings common to all mortals? It will be of no avail to ignore the fact that Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Bharata behaved most humanly sometimes; that they betrayed a touch of earth in their natures on rare occasions, and that though their heads dwelt in the high heavens their feet trod the common earth like other men and women. Nevertheless if we accept that fact, does it mean to say, we wonder, that these contended in them constantly the dual personality of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as in the case of all of us? True, they rose infinitely above the conflict of the higher and the lower impulses of the ordinary man. But having been born as human beings, is it so incompatible that they should occasionally wear their human aspect? It is clear that the distinguished author of these lectures had no thought of questioning the divinity of Sri Rama. He believed it was not essential to the understanding of the story or to profiting by the story. Sri Rama was for him an embodiment of the great virtues of human character and whatever he spoke and did had unmistakably in it the touch of divinity. The fact, however, that Sri Rama thought and did, and had his moments of anguish as well as anger in the same way as any other man, although he moved on a level immeasurably higher than that of others cannot but fill us now and then with pride as Mr. Sastri observes in his lectures.
So much in vindication of the learned lecturer’s attitude to the general belief that Sri Rama was an incarnation of God. Now let us deal with the lectures themselves. It is marvellous how closely he has studied the main characters of the story including the various commentaries. He has been able to expound them so beautifully and so lucidly as none else could. He has noted the most trivial details which would have escaped the eyes of the keenest scholar, and converted them into exceedingly interesting bits of information for the reader. Thus, he has discovered from the text a number of little things, how Sita could not help feeling a little shy when she was handed into the boat on the Ganges by Sri Rama, how she walked between the brothers at one time, the order changing at another, and how she seemed to be in the habit of taking her food in the company of her husband and not after him as has been considered proper for a dutiful wife. We find the lecturer straight, clear and convincing in his analysis of the characters, his construction on the meaning of the texts never twisted or far-fetched as that of most of the commentators, “who have struggled with the texts which pulled them one way, and their own conception of what would be appropriate in an omniscient Divinity which pulled them another way, the conception of Godhead every time prevailing over the obvious meaning of the texts.”
The lecturer discloses the interesting fact that Hanuman is affected with sudden lapses of memory at critical moments and the instances he has selected bear testimony to the extraordinary thoroughness of his scrutiny of that great character. The episode of Surpanaka is an instance which shows that Sri Rama had a keen of sense of humour and he indulged in a practical joke at the expense of Surpanaka just as any other man would be tempted to indulge in. The author depicts an engaging picture of Ravana, how after the curses which his forcible subjection of women to his desire brought on him, he changed his ways and became a gentle lover. These and similar observations prove how completely the lecturer has entered into the spirit of each character.
The character of Sri Rama naturally engages him most. He devotes no less than eight lectures to him. While enumerating the instances which show Sri Rama as representing the man of perfection described by Narada to the Poet at the outset, he has lingered with the utmost love and reverence upon those particular incidents where the divine hero speaks and behaves in an essentially human way. He has tried to explain the Vali episode which according to Valmiki represents Sri Rama as falling a bit short of the perfect man. The Poet gives some explanation which hardly justifies the conduct of Sri Rama with regard to Vali. The commentators have fared no better. Mr. Sastri however finds a solution for the middle. He points out how Sri Rama promised Sugriva that he would kill Vali “that very instant” and having promised that how could he wait? Evidently, he could not hope to finish Vali at once in open combat as Vali was a man of extraordinary prowess. Though the Poet himself states in a number of places his belief in the divinity of Sri Rama, yet he makes him act in a way not quite appropriate to the divinity in him, and makes no attempt either to vindicate him.
Again, in the Yuddha Kanda, the battle being over Sita is brought before her husband for the first time after her internment at the Asokavana. On seeing her Rama suddenly gets angry and uses words which are simply shocking to the ears. Now why does he speak so? To say that he did not mean those words would be to brand him a hypocrite, while it would render him “vulgar and ill-bred” with some, if we say that he actually meant what he said. Valmiki has made his hero speak with regard to Sita, a language which is unthinkable, and yet he has passed him over without any explanation whatever for his behaviour. Mr. Sastri takes this as a telling instance of Sri Rama being swayed by emotions common to all men. He would like to believe that Rama was seized with a sudden fit of jealousy which unbalanced him for the moment. The lecturer has taken great pains to explain himself before introducing this idea in order it should not shock the hearers. Though it looks in a way as a very good explanation, yet it is likely to prove offensive to the sense of deep veneration with which almost all people regard Sri Rama.
The study of the characters of Lakshmana and Bharatha and the comparison between them afford us an exceedingly interesting reading. The lecturer ably defends the conduct of Vibhishana who is accused by some as a traitor abandoning his own country and taking refuge with the enemy. He considers Hanuman as an unique creation of Valmiki and speaks of him in the highest possible terms next to Sri Rama. He is full of admiration for Ravana though his greatness, he says, is unmixed with goodness.
The present volume, it may be said, is unique of its kind. The lecturer has dealt with all the leading characters in the Ramayana with the deepest love and reverence. The high literary sense which he is endowed with, renders him eminently qualified for the task. Passages of great beauty expressing the most sublime thoughts and sentiments are gathered and explained by the author in his own inimitable style. Nothing can be so beautiful as the way in which he closes his lectures. Speaking of Sri Rama’s coronation at the end, “But the real coronation is in our hearts,” he says with fervour: “Rama and Sita should be crowned in our hearts, enthroned in our hearts. Let them govern your thoughts and regulate your lives. At all important occasions, remember them and then you cannot go wrong.”
No one can deny these lectures are a most valuable contribution to our literature, and the author will be justly remembered more for his lectures on the Ramayana than for anything else.
Lectures on the Ramayana, by the Rt. Hon. V. S. Srinivasa Sastri, with a Foreword by T. R. Venkatarama Sastri. Published on behalf of the Madras Samskrit Academy by S. Viswanathan, Central Art Press, 14, Singanna Naick Street, Madras. Price Rs. 10, or $4, or 16sh.