The Tulsi Ramayana at a Benares temple8 min read

The Ramayana of Tulsi Das (begun in 1574 A.D.) has been called “the Bible of modern India”. It is an epic tale embodying the highest ideals of Indian civilisation. The hero, Rama, is God incarnate, walking the earth. On the night when he is to take over the kingdom of Ayodhya (modem Oudh) from his aged father, he finds himself banished to the forest for fourteen years. His spouse Sita, the ideal of Indian womanhood, follows him into the forest, as does his brother Lakshmana. They wander over large tracts of India, visiting the sages who dwell in the forest hermitages, until eventually Sita is kidnapped by the wicked demon Ravana and taken to Ceylon. Rama kills Ravana and rescues Sita, with the aid of Hanuman, a monkey- chief, the ideal servant and disciple of God.

The story was first told in complete form by the sage-poet Valmiki, of uncertain date. But Valmiki wrote in Sanskrit, the learned language of the courts and priests, and the story has been retold again and again in the different vernaculars of India. Possibly no version has achieved such celebrity, however, as that made by Tulsi Das in the Hindi dialect of Oudh as spoken in his day, a work of great literary and spiritual merit. Tulsi Das was a learned man, and though he wrote simply in the language of the common people, he referred to many abstract ideas with which they were not familiar. Moreover, the people by and large were illiterate and could not read his poem, and the dialect in which it was written grew more antiquated and less familiar with the course of time. Gradually the tradition grew up of intoning his text in public places, accompanied by a running explanation in simple current Hindi.

Given the natural eloquence and dramatic sense of the average Hindu, it can easily be understood that these recitations, frequently referred to in Dr. Shastri’s book The Heart of the Eastern Mystical Teachings, soon developed into a great and demanding art. The Pundit who performed them needed to be a man of pure life, far removed from thoughts of fame or personal profit, wholly devoted to God in the form of Rama as depicted in Tulsi Das’s poem. And with this had to go qualities of imagination and humour, the power to point a tale and adorn a moral.

It is becoming more and more difficult to find a Pundit who has the right qualities to give recitations of the Ramayana in contemporary India. Illiteracy is on the wane and materialism on the rise. Fewer young men are coming forward with the patience, dedication and self-abnegation required to master the art of giving the recitations, fewer people are interested in regularly listening to them. For even to be a listener to the “Rama Katha”, as it is called, requires a measure of discipline. Nearly two hours each day have to be set aside for the practice, and the whole operation is quite incompatible with a frivolous attitude to life.

Visitors to the Sankat Mochan temple at Benares in the early years of the present decade, however, could still find a Sangha (community) meeting regularly in the late afternoon to hear the recitations of Pundit Narayana Kanta Vyasa. Though the present temple has a number of Victorian touches, parts of it are evidently much older than the nineteenth century, and the place is surrounded by such an atmosphere of peace that it is hard to disbelieve the tradition that the saint-poet Tulsi Das himself long dwelt there. At one time, for a period of some weeks, a large monkey would come each day and sit practically motionless near the group of listeners, so that it seemed as if Hanuman himself had come to hear the readings.

The Sangha contained a hard core of about twenty or more regulars, and others less regular. One or two were monks, mostly wandering musicians who had taken up their abode at the temple. Some were old folk of the lower middle class, strict in their ideals and conservative in their ways. Some were farmers, some illiterate farm-labourers from the nearby villages. Hardly a single student from the Benares University would come. If the old devotee who used to hobble off to the central part of the temple at the end of the recitation to fetch light for the Arti ceremony was not a lamp-lighter, he certainly recalled the lamp-lighter referred to in The Heart of the Eastern Mystical Teachings. Those who went regularly developed a sense of kinship and of having a common focus for their lives. It was a deep joy to come across another member of the community unexpectedly in a different part of the town and be greeted with a loving “Jaya Sita-Rama”.

The Pundit took the text very slowly, explaining it, and no doubt sometimes over-explaining it, word for word and in great detail. Though his knowledge of Sanskrit and Hindi devotional literature was wide, he relied mostly on his encyclopaedic knowledge of the text of Tulsi’s Ramayana itself. Thus to explain a given word in a given text he would quote many other verses from the Ramayana. He would quote the more obscure ones in full, and the better known ones he would quote minus the last word, which was supplied by the audience, either hesitatingly by one or two voices or by the whole audience with a single shout as the case might be.

He gave prominence to dramatic elements in the story, and when events took a melancholy turn one would notice him continually having to wipe his spectacles, and then occasionally he would break out openly into weeping. Apart from the actual story in the text, he introduced many humorous tales from his own fund, some of which would be recognised by readers of Maulana Rumi’s Masnawi or Saadi’s Gulistan. A saying of the Pundit that sticks in the memory was, “My children, I have always told you, tyaga (renunciation) means to have everything and nothing for yourself”.

I used to visit the Pundit at his modest mud-walled dwelling near the temple, where he lived with his wife and daughter and grand-children, and found him a man of loving disposition and wide sympathies. He used to speak about an Englishman who first used to teach English at a school in Allahabad and then became a monk and devotee of Vishnu at Almorah under the name of Shri Krishna Prem (since deceased).

Perhaps the Pundit did not know of his English books on the Gita and the Katha Upanishad, but he spoke highly of his musicianship and his correct renderings of the Vaishnava hymns. When explaining the symbolism of some of the more obscure poems of Kabir, the Pundit remarked, “these things only become clear to you if you live an ascetic life (practise tapas)”. Life does not change much for the mass of the people in India down the ages, and when there was a technical reference in Kabir to the use of bamboo-poles in the construction of a house, the Pundit was able to point through the doorway to his neighbour’s house to explain it, all the more clearly as the mud walls of the house had been washed away in the recent rains, leaving only the bamboo-poles standing.

The Pundit accepted no fee for his daily recitations, only the “dakshina” offered by the predominantly rustic audience, which was measured in farthings rather than halfpennies. At that time a group of Calcutta business men had just erected an enormous “Tulsi” temple on a nearby site, comparable in vulgarity and magnificence with any pseudo-Gothic Western structure, and the Pundit had frequently been consulted about design and choice of texts to go on the walls. But he declined utterly to go on the roll of Pundits to give readings there, as they were to receive fees for their services.

One could sense that he did not really regard them as genuine practitioners of his art at all, what with their gold watches and fluting melodious voices and splendid turbans. He was pessimistic about the future of his calling, and said that he had searched in vain for a boy with the right qualifications to follow in his own footsteps. Among the qualifications were: a love for the deity Rama greater than for any worldly object, sufficient application to master the works of Tulsi Das to the point of knowing large tracts of them by heart, and the power to communicate the inner spirit of them to others. Thus it appears that what with a falling off in both supply and demand the art of the “Tulsi Katha” is likely to perish by default.

Attempts were made at one time to record some of the sessions on tape, but they broke down, largely owing to the primitive character of the electrical installations at the temple. “Oh well, Hanuman didn’t want it”, said the Pundit, who had viewed the whole project with a sort of benevolent scepticism from the first.