Rama is not just our hero; he is a concept that resonates all through our lives. The story of Rama was first told by Valmiki. But many great poets came after him to retell the story in different eras and for different audience. Goswami Tulsidas, in north India, is one of the most famous poets who sang to the glory of Rama. Incidentally, it was on Chaitra Shukla Navami, popularly known and celebrated as the day lord Rama was born in Ayodhya, as per the Hindu calendar, when Goswami Tulsidas set out to write his epic poem, Ramcharitmanas, and hence an apt occasion to relook at the personage of Tulsidas, his contribution towards preserving and reviving the Hindu faith and most importantly, the tale of Rama.
The epic poem written by Tulsidas is called Ramcharitmanas, literally, the Manas lake brimming over with the deeds of Rama, as against the Valmiki’s Ramayanaand Tamil Poet Kambar’s Ramavataram which means the Rama’s story and the descent of Rama, respectively. The choice of the title is insightful because Tulsidas wanted his readers to take a dip in the soothing waters of this lake and benefit. The title itself, Tulsidas mentions, was chosen by Shiva.
Tulsidas was well aware of the herculean task he was undertaking and the burden of responsibility he felt towards it, and this comes out in the opening pages of the Manas very well. He takes great pains in explaining how a man of very little skill with words, like him, is trying to narrate a story told previously by great poets like Valmiki. He compares this great tale of Rama’s exploits, to a mighty river and the poets who came before him, to kings who have built a bridge over this river which can be used by small ants like himself. He says,
Well aware of the greatness of the poets of the past and humble about his own talents, Tulsidas then proceeds to take many inspired liberties in narration as we shall further.
One must note here that a false claim is often made by some scholars that Valmiki’s Ramayana treats its hero as an ideal man and a king, and it was Tulsidas who elevated Rama to god-like status but nothing can be further from the truth, as both, the Ramayana and the Ramcharitmanas are unequivocal in acknowledging Rama’s divinity. Valmiki in his Ramayana says,
“Entreated by the devatas desirous of slaying the arrogant Ravana, the eternal Vishnu was indeed born in the mortal world as Rama”
Bhavishya Puran, even calls Goswami Tulsidas as the reincarnation of Valmiki in Kali-yuga.
“Valmik will incarnate as Tulsidas in Kaliyug to scribe the story of Rama again”
Both texts also extol Rama as being the Maryada Purushottam. Here Maryada refers to the propriety of the conduct at all times and Purushottam means the quality of being peerless among men.
To understand Tulsidas’s style of narration, one must know the unique socio cultural milieu he was working in. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare and Akbar, and followed Nanak and Kabir in time. India of his time was essentially a civilization under siege. It was a time when large parts of India bore the brunt of the continuous Islamic invasions which had disturbed the socio-political life of Hindus. Mughal ruling class did not share the civilizational values of its subjects and had relegated them to a second class citizen status.The reign of Akbar, believed to be the most liberal among the Mughal emperors, provided a semblance of political stability but the memory of massacres and bloodshed of which Hindus were the prime target, was still fresh in the collective consciousness of Hindus. It was in this period of decay and decline that the devotional poetry of the Bhakti-movement flowered and provided much needed hope to the masses.
Kabir who had appeared on the scene a few decades before Tulsidas, had launched scathing attacks on the religious orthodoxy of both Hindus and Muslims. Both the poets had chosen Varanasi, the center of the Hindu faith to propagate their ideas. Being a disciple of Ramanand, Kabir was also a Vaishnav like Tulsidas , however Kabir’s Rama is quite different from the Rama of Tulsidas. While Kabir’s philosophy is close to monism and even monotheism, Tulsidas seeks to establish Rama as the supreme god incarnated in human form. While Kabir seem to be rattled by the widespread superstition and the dogma around the faiths and his poetry has an element of iconoclasm, Tulsidas comes across as a healer trying to put a balm of faith and hope on the wounded psyche of the Hindus feeling besieged by the foreign rule. His conviction in the power of faith is absolute, and in the opening stanzas of Manas he says,
“I bow to Bhavani and Shankar , who are Faith and Belief incarnate”.
It is often said that the Rama that kabirworhips , is not the same as the son of king Dashrath. At one point he says,
“Everyone worships Rama, the son of Dashrath, but the essence of his name is to be understood”.
While Kabir acknowledges the historical and the mythological Rama, he uses the symbolism associated with the divine name of Ramato lead us to the Nirgun-Nirakar Brahm, the formless and the attribute-less supreme. Tulsidas has a significantly different approach. He occasionally recognizes the Nirgun-Nirakar, but continuously harks back to the Sagun-Ram, the one with divine qualities and an equally attractive visage. At one point he says,
“There are two aspects of God, the unqualified and the qualified. Both aspects are unfathomable and unparalled. To my mind greater than both is the name that has established its rule over both”
Teachings of both Kabir and Tulsi, have survived to this day, with followers of Kabir identifying themselves as part of a sect called Kabir Panth. The influence of Tulsidas can be appreciated by the fact that the Rama that millions of Hindus worship today is essentially the Rama of Tulsidas and not the formless and attribute-less Rama of Kabir. Unfortunately the practice of Islam in the Indian subcontinent today draws nothing from the teachings of Kabir, though he was widely regarded as a Muslim in his own time. For millions of Hindus today, both Tulsi and Kabir remain revered figures and their compositions set to music, are played as devotional songs. To my mind this is a trait unique to the spiritual enterprise of Hindus. Over several thousand years we have been able to assimilate the best teachings of the realized souls and have made them a part of our lore, while never losing sight of the essential foundations on which our faith stands.
Let’s now turn our gaze to how Tulsidas saw the life and times of Rama and the unique elements of his narration. True to his stated goals of taking the Rama’s story to all and sundry, Tulsidas decided to choose Awadhi as the medium of expression, despite being a scholar of Sanskrit himself. Like Valmiki Ramayana ,Manas is also arranged in seven kaands (cantos, episodes or books) starting with Baal-kaand and ending with Uttar Kaand . As is common with many Indian epics and the Puranas, Manas also takes the help of dialogues which are happening between different individuals at different points of time,to reveal the plot. Tulsidas duly mentions that the story of Rama has been told by Shiva to Parvati, by Kakbhushundi to Garud, by sage Yagyavalakya to Bharadwaja and by Tulsidas to his readers.
While Tulsidas’s total devotion to Rama is visible throughout the epic, he also has a special place for Sita in his heart. In his treatment of Sita’s character he comes across as most creative. The famous episode of the Sita’s abduction by Ravana, has a twist in Tulsi’s retelling. Rama after the unsavory epidose with Surphnakha and sensing Ravana’s reaction, decides to use a ploy. He asks Sita to abide in fire till he can destroy all the demons. Sita leaves him with her shadow form that looked exactly like hers and the one that is eventually abducted by Ravana. As one can see Tulsidas, who was a very fond husband once, before he turned to Rama at the behest of his wife, could never bear to see real Sita being tormented by Ravana. Agni Pariksha, the fire test that Sita is subjected to, serves as a ploy to exchange the real Sita with her shadow self.
During the course of his rendering, Tulsidas takes several other deviations from the original.The widespread practice among Hindus of treating monkeys as the form of Lord Hanumana and not hurting them is also a result of Tulsi’s retelling. While the Valmiki Ramayana depicts Hanuman as a human belonging to a forest dwelling Vanartribe, Tulsi’s Hanuman is a monkey with divine qualities.
Similarly, Rama worshipping Shiva by making a sand lingam at the site of Rameshwaram doesn’t find an explicit mention in the Valmiki Ramayan. In Tulsi’s version, Rama clearly mentions his heart’s desire to install a Shiva-Lingam at the beautiful site. He says,
करिहउँइहाँ संभुथापना। मोरेहृदयँपरमकलपना॥
“I will install an emblem of Shambhu here, it is the crowning ambition of my heart”
“Having installed the Shiva linga there and worshipping it with due solemnity, Rama says,” No one is as dear to me as the Shiva”
In Valmiki’s version the incident finds a cursory mention. In the Yuddha Kanda Valmiki describes the scene where Rama , Sita and their retinue are returning to Ayodhya in the Pushpaka Vimana, and Rama is showing Sita all the places that he had visited during his journey to Lanka. He points to the place where Shiva had bestowed grace on him by saying,
“See this island, located in the middle of the ocean, where my troops were stationed. At this place, the lord Shiva (the supreme deity) formerly bestowed his grace on me.”
Another interesting episode where Tulsidas adds a touch of drama and excitement is the Sita-swayamvar. In Valmiki Ramayana, the swayamvar doesn’t happen at all.Instead, whenever someone mighty enough used to visit Janaka, he would show him the Shiva Dhanusha (Bow of Shiva) and ask them to lift it as a test of his suitability as Sita’s prospective groom. In Tulsi’s narration, the great king Janaka organizes a Swayamvar attended by many kings including Ravana. While all the kings present in the court, fails to even move the great bow, Rama not only lifts but also breaks it in an effort to put the string on.
And finally , perhaps wanting to save Sita from the further tribulations , Tulsidas ends his narrative with Rama uniting with Sita and his four brothers, and the birth of children in the family, reminding us of the victory of good over evil with happy results. As the narration progresses , one can see his originality coming to the fore as he deftly handles sensitive episodes, and very often giving them a form and flavor very unique but at no times forgetting his prime responsibility of establishing a moral framework for his readers to follow, built on the foundation of devotion towards Rama.
Throughout its length, Manas is filled with aphorisms encapsulating wisdom very relevant to the worldly life. Virtually every Hindu home keeps a copy of Ramcharitmanas which is used for daily or weekly recitals and in large swaths of India, the ability to quote its verses during regular conversations or while making a point, is considered a sign of intelligence and devotion. The relevance of the story of Rama as rendered by the great Tulsidas, has stood the test of time with every verse enjoying a mantra-like status and it remains a truly Indian classic.