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HomeVarietyBooksMisogynist or misunderstood? Ami Ganatra retells the Hindu epic Ramayana in her latest book

Misogynist or misunderstood? Ami Ganatra retells the Hindu epic Ramayana in her latest book

Author Ami Ganatra speaks to OpIndia Editor Nirwa Mehta on her latest book, Ramayana Unravelled which talks about lesser known facets of Shri Ram from the epic written by Rishi Valmiki.

Mythological fiction, mythology inspired fiction or stories from our ancient text, whichever way one looks at it, readers are definitely in for a treat as more and more authors are offering writings on the Hindu dharma. OpIndia spoke to Ami Ganatra, whose new book Ramayana Unravelled retells the story of Shri Rama and looks at topics such as his childhood and youth while trying to understand him and the choices he made. The newer generation often cites certain incidents from the Hindu epic as ‘misogynist’, however, is the epic really or is it just one of the many wrong interpretations of our history.

Here are the excerpts of the interview

Is it yet another book on Shri Ram? How is it different from the ones already written and widely read.

Yes, indeed it is yet another book on Shri Ram and Ramayana :). Most books, however, would fall in the mythological fiction category, or should I say aitihasik fiction, to be more precise. As with Mahabharata, so with Ramayana, authors have picked themes and characters of Ramayana and woven stories around them adding their colour, flavour and even ideology.

In the process, sometimes, turning the message of the epics on its head where heroes are demonised, villains deified and a whole dollop of victimhood added to make the stories evoke deep emotions. Now, as long as it is known as fiction, there is absolutely no problem.

Retellings have been a part of our literary tradition. Unfortunately, in recent years, retelling of our itihasa is used more often to set social narratives and make assertions about Hindu Dharma and Indic society itself. Gullible readers assume the same to be the truth because avenues of knowing the itihasa for what it is without having to read the entire grantha or its translation are limited.. Even in those writings which are more faithful to the epic, events get told as stories, more often missing out on the underlying nuances and motivations of the decisions and actions taken by the characters.

My attempt in Ramayana Unravelled has been to narrate the events along with all the nuances that Rishi Valmiki has mentioned in Ramayana without giving my own color. The goal of the book is very simple – to provide readers a lucid and easily available reference point to come back to and check the validity of most commonly pushed narratives that they may encounter and to bring forth the profound and practical wisdom of ancestors to help make sense of our own lives.

In recent past a lot of books have been written as author’s interpretations of Hindu epics. What inspired you to talk about it?

As mentioned above, one motivation was to talk about the itihasa ‘as it is’ narrated by our rishis and provide a ready reference to cross validate fictitious ideological propaganda passed of as ‘the truth’. But that happened later, after I actually got to studying the epics and realised what is truth and what is propaganda.

The very inspiration to study the epics was to find answers to questions that bothered me deeply about certain characters and events. Having heard the stories as they are usually told in mainstream media, I couldn’t make sense of the significant inconsistencies seen in behaviours of the main actors and the adjectives ascribed to them. It couldn’t be that our rishis called someone epitome of Dharma when their actions seemed to suggest quite the opposite in certain instances.

When no satisfying answer was forthcoming, I decided to read the texts for what they are. That’s when I figured, the seeming inconsistencies in characters was because of my incomplete understanding of the itihasa itself. I also figured that I was not alone in asking the questions I asked. There were many like me who were genuinely keen to know. The bigger realization was how profound the texts were in their wisdom – nuanced and practical, and how relevant that wisdom is even today, more so today. And that’s how the writing and talking began.

Do you consider Ramayan and Mahabharata as Hindu epics or mythology? Did the events depicted in the epics take place or were they imagination?

Our rishis called Ramayana and Mahabharata itihasa and that’s what I believe they are. We have a very intricate classification of various types and Shruti and Smriti literature; so clearly they knew what they were speaking about. The word itihasa – iti-ha-aasa means ‘So it was’.

The definition is ‘Itihasa is that which is based on something that happened in the past, is narrated in a katha format; and is meant to give instructions of the four purusharthas – Dharma, Artha, Kaama, Moksha – for living a fruitful life . In that sense, itihasa is not merely a documentation of the past, but a commentary of what happened in the past with lessons for our own lives. In a way, itihasa is a case study of sorts which, through the lives of our ancestors, highlights the wisdom of Sanatana Dharma.

Given the katha format, there surely are allegorical elements to the story but that doesn’t negate the actual happening of the core events. In fact, I’d say, some allegorical elements are definitely later day additions. For example, stories Ahalya being a stone, or stones with name of Shri Rama floating on the sea – these do not appear in Srimad Valmiki Ramayana. The original text narrates these incidents more realistically.

Recently, the youth of India, especially sub-25 year old category have taken to Dharma and want to read more about the faith they were born in. What do you think has led to this?

I think a few factors have come together in the last few years. A big one is technology – the era of internet, which has democratized knowledge significantly. Unlike before where a group of elite pretty much controlled what was available to the masses and what not, internet made dissemination of information equitable, which led to a revolution of sorts. A lot of literature of India’s past, it’s history, it’s culture, from credible sources which was actively suppressed by the gatekeepers for years since independence became available for ready consumption.

News did not remain the prerogative of select media houses. Happenings which otherwise were deliberately ignored because it didn’t suit certain agenda, were now brought to the masses. The hypocrisy and double standards of the elites, especially those in media was out there for everyone to see.

As the people, especially the younger ones, had access to wider range of information, they started questioning all that they saw and read, even more about their own roots which the education system (unfortunately even after independence) taught them to be ashamed of, but their living experience was significantly different from what they read. As they see their counterparts in the country and even globally wear their identities on their sleeve unapologetically inspite of the patchy record of all those religious systems, Indian youth too has come to challenge the tone of the narrative being handed over to them and are curious to understand why they are the way they are.

Also with overall standard of living improving in the country in the last 3 decades, youngsters are becoming more assertive about their identity and not bogged down by the weight of extreme poverty which the earlier generations lived through. They are more confident in their own skin and not willing to bullied for what they are. This change is quite evident in Sports as well where we see our current lot of players showcase a greater will to succeed and a killer instinct which was not seen in the previous generation.

Lord Ram is politicised, some say. What are your thoughts on the same?

It pains me that it took over 500 years, 70 years since independence to reclaim the bhumi of Shri Rama; that for so many years, all that existed in the name of a temple in his janmabhumi, was his murti in a literal tent; that for over two decades ‘an alleged liberal intellectual brigade’ tried to not just question the existence Shri Rama and of a temple in Ayodhya but actively misled the courts with false and flimsy testimonies despite foolproof historical records, even those of the Mughals; leaving no scope for any doubts; that even chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ is labelled as threatening by certain groups of people – what could be a bigger travesty for Hindus in this land of Shri Rama.

So yes, Shri Rama has been politicized not by the believers, but by those who make the allegations of politicization, those who have sought to deny Shri Ram his rightful place in his homeland and in the consciousness of a billion Hindus.

Jai Shri Rama

About the book:

No epic has moved the consciousness of millions like the Ramayana. The appeal of the story of Rama is such that it has inspired the imagination of countless storytellers over the centuries, across the length and breadth of the subcontinent. From Jain poets to Bhavabhuti, from Kamban to Goswami Tulsidas, many have retold the Ramayana in their own language, infusing their own unique flavour. Though the story of Rama is much loved and well-known, questions prevail. Ramayana Unravelled attempts to address some key concerns: How did his childhood and youth shape Rama? Why did Rama agree to go on vanvas – was it only to obey his father or was there more to it? How was the relationship of Rama and Seeta? Is the Ramayana inherently misogynist, considering the characterisation of Seeta, Shurpanakha, Kaikeyi and Tara? What led to the downfall of Ravan? Ami Ganatra takes the reader through the events of the Ramayana, resolving conundrums and underlining the reasons the epic continues to be cherished to this day.

You can buy a copy here.

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Nirwa Mehta
Nirwa Mehta
Politically incorrect. Author, Flawed But Fabulous.

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