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The anti-caste iconoclast of medieval India

The anti-caste iconoclast of medieval India

Author: Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
Publication: Daily News & Analysis (DNA)
Date: April 13, 2008
URL: http://www.dnaindia.com/report.asp?newsid=1159558

Ramanujar: The Life And Ideas Of Ramanuja
Indira Parthasarathy
Translated from Tamil by T Sriraman
Oxford University Press
196 pages, Rs495

Ramanuja, the medieval philosopher-reformer, is less well-known than he should be. The cognoscenti who claim to know about Indian philosophy, both in India and the west, are only keen to show off their appreciation of the stratospheric subtleties of the advaita philosophy of Sankara.

The 12th century Ramanuja is a doughty philosopher in his own right who challenged Sankara's abstruse abstractions. He has also dirtied his hands in his battle to overthrow caste hierarchy inside the temple matrix.

To the contemporary Indian, this social revolution remains an obscure event in the annals of south India.

Ramanuja was a modern figure long before modernity as we know it was invented. It is for this reason that Tamil playwright and novelist Indira Parthasarathy's play, Ramanujar is of immense importance to the contemporary reader.

It is for this reason alone that T Sriraman's deceptively disarming translation works - the reader is not distracted by an awkward fidelity to the original Tamil or by a cavalier contemporary rendering.

Parthasarathy takes an unorthodox approach in this play. It renders, with a sense of urgency, the message of an egalitarian society as envisaged by the Vaishnavite saints, known as azhwars, and how Ramanuja makes it his life's mission to spread it far and wide -inside the orthodox cocoons, and among the people scattered on the margins. It is a beautiful unfolding of a life narrative which uses devotion to God as a means of breaking caste barriers.

After receiving the secret teaching from Ghoshti Purna, who warns him that he should not reveal to the commoners what he has been taught, the first thing Ramanuja does is to climb the ramparts of the temple and declare to the people gathered there: "My purpose is to share my bliss with you… There is no place where God dwells not. If we see Vaikuntam everywhere, there is no high or low in what we see. The four-caste division is an injustice...."

Ramanuja combines philosophy with social reform. Referring to the Vaishnavite hymns of the azhwars, he says that they contain deeper meanings and there should be new interpretations.

When a disciple asks him if anyone can interpret, Ramanuja replies: "Interpretation is acceptable if it fits, whoever it comes from. The interpretation offered should satisfy our aesthetic sense. Aesthetics and spirituality are not different from each other. Nor are bhakti and rasa…"

What is most interesting about the Ramanuja story and which Parthasarathy fully projects is the rich social and intellectual texture of Indian life in the medieval times, with the political rulers patronising Saivism and Jainism at the time, the forest-dwellers and the panchamans (the outcastes) looking for spiritual solace. Ramanuja meets them all with his message of compassion, love and beauty.

The episode that is of great interest is Ramanuja's encounter with the Delhi Sultan to retrieve the idol of Sampatkumara from the temple in Melkote in Karnataka. It's historicity is certainly dubious, but the message embedded in it is strikingly tolerant, one that can be derived only from a belief in God.

The sister of the sultan is attached to the idol of Sampatkumara, whom she considers a playmate. She accompanies the idol back, and Ramanuja assures the Muslim ruler: "I vow to you in the name of God I worship, I will not change her religion. She will be known from now and forever as Turukka Nachiyar.

And there will be a shrine for her in all our temples, as there is one for our Andal. It is certain that people ages hence will keep talking of this divine Vaishnavite-Muslim connection." It is a fact that in all the Vaishnavite temples in the south, there is a shrine for this Muslim consort of Vishnu.

Parthasarathy is a creative writer who is deeply engaged with the social and political issues, and he is ready to tackle the big issues as themes in this play. Many people speak vacuously about India's many traditions and million mutinies, but very few have the intellectual sinews to give them a voice and a face. Parthasarathy does it with quiet aplomb.

- r_parsa@dnaindia.net


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