“Three Hundred Ramayanas” & “The Jewel of Medina”
Last week, responding to a petition to ban a history textbook, the Supreme Court asked Delhi University’s expert panel to consider the views of petitioners before submitting a final report to the Vice-Chancellor.
As some of you would know, the textbook – prescribed as part of the BA (Hons) second year syllabus at Delhi University – is said to include offensive references to Shri Hanuman and Sita Mataa such as “Lord Hanuman was a henchman of Lord Rama” and “the little monkey was a womaniser” etc…The book was the cause of a protest led by ABVP earlier this year during which Dr Jafri, the Head of History Deptt at DU was manhandled…
Curious to know more about the textbook, I spent some time researching on the internet this morning…Here is a link to Ramanujan’s essay that is included in the textbook…
After reading it, I felt that the ABVP over-reacted on this one… The “offensive” passages are not penned by Ramanujan but are part of folklore and stories around Ramayana in different cultures and regions. Furthermore, I found them more “entertaining” rather than “offensive”…As an example,
One day when Rama was sitting on his throne, his ring fell off. When it touched the earth, it made a hole in the ground and disappeared into it. It was gone. His trusty henchman, Hanuman, was at his feet. Rama said to Hanuman, “Look, my ring is lost. Find it for me.”
Note that the word “henchman” is not Ramanujan’s translation and possibly part of the original folk-story…What is the problem in that? In another version of Ramayana mentioned by Ramanujan, Sita is Ravana’s daughter…
I hope most of you would agree that there is space for divergent views in Hinduism…and a big attraction of this faith for me is that it allows – and respects – alternative interpretations, viewpoints and thoughts….Let us not dilute this core feature of Sanatan Dharma.
On Sunday in far-away London, the home of the publisher of a similarly controversial book (although this was not a textbook but a fictional novel) was fire-bombed, just “hours after police had warned the man that he could be a target for fanatics”. The book, “The Jewel of Medina” is written by Sherry Jones and had already caused controversy in the US. Martin Rynja (the publisher) had bought the UK publishing rights earlier this month.
From The Guardian:
The book was originally due to have been published in August by US giant Random House. But amid controversy the company halted publication, a move denounced by Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, as ‘censorship by fear’.
…One sex scene has been described as ‘softcore pornography’ by an American academic, Denise Spellberg, an influential professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas. Spellberg made the comments after Random House sent her the book hoping for a favourable comment to publish on its jacket. Instead, in an email that was leaked to the US press, Spellberg described the novel as a ‘very ugly, stupid piece of work’.
‘I don’t have a problem with historical fiction,’ Spellberg wrote. ‘I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into softcore pornography.’
It appears Spellberg was instrumental in drawing attention to the book among segments of the Muslim community. In April, Shahed Amanullah, an editor of a popular Muslim website, claimed Spellberg had told him the book ‘made fun of Muslims and their history’.
The resulting furore prompted Random House to pull the book, a move that dismayed its author, who received a $100,000 advance…
My question to all of you is:
What do you make of Spellberg’s argument viz: “‘I don’t have a problem with historical fiction (but)…I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history…”
- Is “Ramayana” part of our sacred history?
- Can the folk-variants of Ramayana be considered ”deliberate mis-interpretation” of history?
Anyways, I will be watching the reaction of Indian government to this book whenever (if) it is released in India.
P.S. Curiously, it appears that DU had not taken permission from OUP before reproducing Ramanujan’s essay in their textbook.