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Caste, Shambuka and Marginalized Reinterpretations of The Ramayana

Caste, Shambuka and Marginalized Reinterpretations of The Ramayana

Emma Leiken profile.jpg


Emma Leiken

 Emma Leiken profile.jpgA tapasvi is to be venerated, whoever it may be. ~ Kuvempu, (Shudra Tapasvi)

For many staunch devotees of Rama within the Hindu tradition, the Shambuka incident within The Ramayana is an illegitimate part of the canon. This is the case, because for many, the Uttarakanda of Valmiki’s standard Ramayana telling (which contains this episode) is an interpolation – a non-sacred addition to the text added by a subsequent author. Attributing the writing of the Uttarakanda to a later and unknown author allows many to circumvent issues of caste in readings of The Ramayana.

Likewise, those devotees who go off of Tulsidas’s Hindi re-telling, The Ramcaritmanas: Ocean of the Deeds of Rama, do not address the Shambuka incident at all, as it is only present in Valmiki. Despite these loopholes, if we are to acknowledge the legitimate place of the Shambuka episode in the ever-evolving Ramayana tradition, we find ourselves having to grapple with caste and its implications as they relate to the epic. In the traditional Shambuka incident, a Brahmin comes to King Rama, weeping over the unprompted death of his son. The Brahmin then declares that his son would not have died prematurely had King Rama been ensuring that each subject was performing his or her proper varnasrama-dharma (caste-specific duty or ritual profession). Ultimately, a sage named Narada explains to Rama that indeed, a deviation from dharma has taken place. A Shudra is transgressing his varnasrama-dharma by practicing tapas[1] deep in the forest. When Rama finds Shambuka in the forest practicing asceticism and learns that he is infact, a Shudra, Rama beheads him. In this telling, the moment Rama beheads Shambuka, the Brahmin’s child is restored to life. This is the original telling of the Shambuka incident in Valmiki’s Uttarakanda.[2]

Whether or not the Shambuka incident was in the original Valmiki telling or is a later interpolation is not my concern. Regardless of its origin, the incident warrants discussion, as to this day, it circulates in the folktales, minds and imaginations of many within the Hindu tradition and outside of it. If only for these reasons, the Shambuka incident forms an integral part of The Ramayana tradition—a living and evolving tradition whose scope is not confined to any particular means or time period, but rather, lives on in the hearts of the storytellers of today and tomorrow. In this paper, the question I am seeking to address is: What are some of the ways in which low-caste individuals have reinterpreted The Ramayana tradition with particular attention to the Shambuka incident and issues of caste? In other words, how does one make sense of certain aspects within Valmiki or Tulsidas’s Ramayana tellings if one is not a male twice-born and therefore, in a place of privilege within the caste framework? In probing these questions, I will situate various tellings or practices into two categories—the first category being: contexts in which The Ramayana functions as a sacred text or epic capable of being modified in light of the teller’s positionality, and the second category being: contexts in which The Ramayana does not function as a sacred epic but rather, functions as a framework to talk about historical and contemporary manifestations of caste inequality. Though their ways of dealing with caste issues in The Ramayana are varied, in this paper, I will illustrate that all of the tellers in question exercise control over the text, and indoing so, demonstrate an understanding that The Ramayana is fluid, up for modification and worthy of attention.

I will begin with a discussion of examples that fall into the first category—the practice of the Ramnamis, and Shudra Tapasvi, a play by Kuppali Venkatappa Puttappa, henceforth referred to affectionately as Kuvempu. From there, I will address retellings in the second category, using two plays (Shambook Vadh, by Periyar Lalayee Singh and The Justice of Ram-Rajya by Swami Achhutanand)[3]. Regarding my examples for classification, I must acknowledge that the primary sources up for examination here are different. With the Ramnamis, the practice up for examination is a series of activities implemented during chanting sessions of the Manas—a set of practices—and the other three examples that I will situate into the two categories are plays centered around a specific incident in Valmiki’s Ramayana.

As a starting point, I should make it known that my opinion falls in the realm of that of historian Romila Thapar—that changes or alterations introduced in the various Ramayana retellings I will be discussing, “[are] not simply variations in the story to add flavor to the narrative, [but rather], deliberate attempts at taking up a well-known theme and using it to present a new point of view arising out of ideological and social differences in perspective.”[4] When we acknowledge the deliberateness of these modifications to Valmiki’s or Tulsidas’s more ‘standard’ epics, we can then account forthe reasons the changes were put in place—the various teller’s impetuses and viewpoints in light of their positionality or history of marginalization.

The Ramayana as a Sacred Text

I will now move to a discussion of the Ramnamis and their use of the Ramcaritmanas, drawing on ethnographic research conducted by Ramdas Lamb. In this section, I will be looking at what emerged from Lamb’s fieldwork, and put his discoveries in the context of my argument that the Ramnamis falls into the category of a low-caste group that views The Ramayana as a sacred text capable of being modified. The Ramnami Samaj is a sect of people historically deemed ‘Untouchable’ from Chhattisgargh, India. The evolution of their history is one of increased literacy and assertion—and as Lamb observes, one that acknowledges the “growing importance of oral variants of the Manas, based on Tulsidas’s telling of the Ram story yet distinct from it.”[5] The sect’s founder, Parasuram, devoted himself to the Manas after being cured from leprosy by a Ramanandi ascetic. It is for this reason that Parasuram’s followers believe in the text’s ability to heal and that the mantras of Ramnam possess transformative powers.

Problems arose however, when, after increasing literacy within the community, and subsequent comprehension of the text’s meaning, the Ramnamis began to understand that some verses of the text supported orthodox Hindu beliefs regarding Brahminical superiority and the inferiority of low castes and women. In short, they realized that the text they revered for so long was not entirely for them—not in acknowledgement of their humanity, worth and personhood. For instance, The Manas emphasizes the importance of the Brahmins over other castes, when in it, Ram is referred to as the “protector of Vedic boundaries” whose devotees must “endure suffering for the sake of Brahmins and cows.”[6]

After coming to the realization that certain parts of the Manas espoused their group’s lowliness, the Ramnamis had to find a way to deal with this inherent contradiction. A question that comes up here is: How does a group make sense of scripture or epic that is, as Lamb articulates, “diametrically opposed to their own beliefs…and supportive of the existing social and religious hierarchy that had placed them at the bottom…?”[7] The Ramnamis dealt with this issue in a very straightforward and particular way. They did so by creating practices that granted them agency. Rather than rejecting The Ramayana altogether, they cut out verses that they did not believe could be true and incorporated ones that resonated with them from other texts. Ultimately, this realization pushed certain members of the community to become literate so that they could practice discernment. Soon, they were able to sift through existing verses and eliminate those that were not for them, or in other words, contrary to their developing philosophy and in opposition to their self-respect.

In their evolving strategy for choosing which texts to incorporate into their chanting sessions, the Ramnamis decided on two criteria—one related to musical technique (they wanted the metrical form of the verses to be in dohas or caupais), and two, and perhaps more crucially, to this argument: they only chose content that they believed pertained explicitly to Ramnam, or in other words, Rama’s goodness and wisdom. Accordingly, then, when the Ramnamis realized the prevalence of the chanting of Ramnam in Kabir’s poetry, they incorporated verses from Kabir’s poems into their bhajans.[8] Evidently, they altered their chanting sessions to incorporate texts that accorded with their principles and what they believed to be the essence of The Ramayana—Rama’s ultimate goodness. In emphasizing what they believed to be the heart of The Manas, they deliberately left out verses related to caste differences, rituals, and devotion to deities aside from their beloved Rama. Furthermore, rather than dwelling on Rama’s potentially condemnable or adharmic acts such as his treatment of Sita, or his murdering of Vali, they focus on Rama’s “impartial love, compassion, and forgiveness.”[9] As we will soon see, their choosing to focus on Rama’s good qualities rather than his transgressions is a stark contrast from the examples in category two. However, because the Ramnamis are going off of Tulsidas’s Manas, their project is slightly less complex, as they do not encounter the issue of making sense of the beheading of Shambuka, an incident that takes place in the Uttarakanda of Valmiki, and not Tulsidas’s Ramayana.[10]

Not surprisingly, the Ramnamis’ intention to make The Manas and their chanting sessions in accordance with their belief-system and values had implications for whichcharacters they focus on in The Manas. Concentrating on those who have potentially marginalized positionalities and those who demonstrate fierce devotion to Rama, in their chanting sessions, the Ramnamis pay special attention to Nisadraj (a chieftain of the Untouchable boatman caste), Vibhsan (Ravana’s daemon brother who ultimately devotes himself to Rama,) and the beloved monkey-god, Hanuman. It comes as no surprise that Hanuman is amongst the characters the Ramnamis focus on, as many scholars have observed that he is a symbol of strength and resilience—a potentially effective resource for low-caste groups seeking to legitimize their connection with gods and the divine. Former Ramayana Seminar Scholar David Reese expands this idea further and argues that, “Hanuman is both divine and subaltern.” He goes on to cite that, “the dark side of the Hanuman tradition reaches out and supports those who are assigned an impure or liminal status in society—often the poor and oppressed.” Reese notes some of Hanuman’s links to oppressed communities as being his strength, accessibility and his birth story in which he is an illegitimate child of a wind father and a monkey mother.[11]

Ultimately, as Lamb points out, the Ramnamis’ qualms with certain verses soon shaped their understanding of the sort of text the Manas is—a text that is fluid and capable of being modified. It is important to note that while many might view theirs as a sort of reformist, militant project, and many orthodox Brahmins might view them as deviating from the infallibility of scripture or holy text, for the Ramnamis, they are espousing nothing but the truth.

Overall, the Ramnamis are a profound example of a low-caste group that has made Hinduism and one of its great epics compatible with their belief-system. This act ofself-assertion and devotion defines their interpretation of the Manas. Lamb has even made evidence available to us that the Ramnamis openly believe in the co-existence of the modification and sanctity of the text, as he notes an elder Ramnami declaring, “The Ramayan is so great we cannot possibly damage it; we can only make it better!”[12]

In the same category as the Ramnamis, rather than rejecting The Ramayana or the epic’s protagonist entirely, playwright Kuvempu (1904-1994), a Shudra from Karnataka and an ardent devotee of Lord Rama, alters the text but still preserves what he believes to be its sanctity. Kuvempu differs from the Ramnamis however, in that he explicitly deals with the Shambuka incident, changing it altogether to one in which Rama does not kill Shambuka—one in which, ultimately, the Brahmin learns right from wrong or in other words, comes to his senses. Unlike the following examples in category two of Singh and Achhutanand, Kuvempu, like the Ramnamis, was very religious and devotional. His Rama, similar to the Rama of the Ramnamis’ worldview, would not kill Shambuka, or harbor casteist ideals. In this play, Rama advocates for Shambuka, and takes issue with the casteist beliefs and close-mindedness of the Brahmin. Kuvempu’s play is less about exposing Rama’s flaws, and more about showing Rama’s kindness and acceptance of the stigmatized Shudra ascetic.

In this telling, as in the standard one, Shambuka, a Shudra who is transgressing his caste duties by pursuing tapas, is blamed for the death of the Brahmin’s son. It is what occurs after this accusation however, where Kuvempu’s play significantly deviates from the original telling. In this play, Rama is portrayed as a logical and compassionate rulerwho tries to push the Brahmin to allow his sense of logic to overcome his attachment to caste beliefs, prejudice and pride. In defense of Shambuka, Rama asks the Brahmin, “Isn’t tapas a holy practice?”[13] Here, Kuvempu has Rama appealing to the Brahmin’s sense of logic. Rama then asks the Brahmin whether it would be a sin to kill a person who is performing tapas. The Brahmin grants that yes, it would be a sin to kill a person performing tapas. The implication here then, is that the person doing tapas should be worthy of reverence. We also later find out from Rama that, “an ordinary arrow cannot kill a person who performs tapas, because meditation generates special protective power.”[14] Regardless, clearly the only element keeping the Brahmin from respecting and honoring Shambuka is that he is of low-caste. This illustrates the restrictive and confining nature of the caste-system. Varna and jati are getting in the way of the proper respect due to someone who is performing holy acts.

In Kuvempu’s play, while reflecting upon an anthill, Rama is reminded of Valmiki, who was also a Shudra, and ponders, “That reference to the anthill touches me to the quick by recalling the great poet who is today sheltering Sita. That poet too is a Shudra like Shambuka. Born a hunter, he too achieved greatness through tapas.”[15] Ultimately, the power of moral transformation is emphasized in the play, when the Brahmin receives a divine revelation, suggesting that he has been in bondage to the shastras. In the play, a voice from the heavenly realm comes out of the sky and says in Sanskrit, “Recourse to scriptures alone will not help decide duty. A thoughtless act can only do harm to dharma.”[16] In this comment, Kuvempu suggests that one cannot just follow ancient texts like the dharmasastras to establish what is really right. Upon hearing this revelation, the Brahmin becomes enlightened, and realizes that, “[he] has been hidebound by tradition, warped by shastras, blinded by jati, [and that] a tapasvi is to be venerated, whoever it may be. Showing respect brings merit. Showing contempt brings sin.”[17] Evidently, Kuvempu’s attachment to Rama as a holy and admirable figure does not prevent him from cultivating a seemingly revolutionary attitude in re-writing the epic’s protagonist as a hero who advocates for the lower-castes and brings logic and morality to the seemingly ‘backwards’ Brahmin. In this telling, Kuvempu illustrates that the essence of Hinduism isn’t caste, but rather bhakti, devotion.

Furthermore, aside from Kuvempu’s treatment of the Shambuka episode as evidence of his belief in the legitimacy of the modification of the traditional telling and demonstration that The Ramayana is fluid and up for alteration, his commitment to non-violence leads him to leave out other occurrences in the text. For instance, in his epic retelling of the whole Ramayana, he leaves out Hanuman’s burning of Lanka, because, as Ramayana scholar Paula Richman observes, his “Hanuman would not cause the death of so many innocent people.”[18] Evidently, Kuvempu has no qualms with rewriting certain episodes in The Ramayana according to his values and his understanding of the goodness or uprightness of the epic’s main characters.

The Ramayana as a Framework for Critique and a Means of Mobilization 

While all of these tellers have to grapple with caste in The Ramayana, the following example, Periyar Lalayee Singh’s play, Shambook Vadh, is distinct from the ones of the Ramnamis and Kuvempu because his is explicitly political and aimed at mobilizing Dalits and Shudras to recognize their plight of hardship and exploitation. It is in part for this reason, that his work falls into the second category – the use of The Ramayana as a framework to illustrate manifestations of caste-based discrimination. Whereas the Ramnamis believe they are advocating true Hinduism and opt to modify The Manas and stay within the Hindu fold, and Kuvempu is clearly an ardent devotee of Lord Rama, it is unclear as to what extent Singh is critiquing Hinduism from within the tradition, or after having rejected it.

Before examining certain aspects of Singh’s play however, I must clarify that within it, the Aryans symbolize Brahmins and the non-Aryans symbolize the indigenous population (later regarded Shudras, ‘Untouchables,’ or Dalits.) This rhetoric or framework of viewing Brahmins as Aryan invaders who subjugated the indigenous population (the Shudras and or Dalits), was harbored by various reformers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries such as Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Periyar E.V. Ramasamy.

At the start of his play, Shambook Vadh, Singh notes that the piece is in memory of Dr. Bhimrao Babasaheb Ambedkar.[19] Though it is unclear to what extent Singh rejected Hinduism completely, by choosing to begin his piece in this way, we can inferthat he likely harbors some of the same critiques of Hinduism that Dr. Ambedkar held—judging from the text of his play, perhaps that there is no place for Dalit’s self-respect if they choose to remain within the Hindu tradition. It would be hard to believe that Singh would devote his piece in memory of Dr. Ambedkar if he rejected the heart of Dr. Ambedkar’s core beliefs. Further echoes of Dr. Ambedkar’s rhetoric of the need for self-respect amongst Dalits occur when in the play itself, the character Kundan observes, “It is surprising to see so much self-respect in every child of the Aryans and its total absence among the non-Aryans…They have accepted slavery and are attuned to obedience.”[20] As we will soon see, the liberties Singh takes with altogether rewriting Valmiki’s Shambook incident are evidence of the fact that he does not revere The Ramayana as a sacred text in the same way the Ramnamis do, but rather, approaches it as a teaching tool capable of shedding light on atrocities and inequities within society.

Regardless of Singh’s relationship to Hinduism and Dr. Ambedkar, it is clear that Singh uses the Shambook story within The Ramayana as a framework to critique the Aryan invaders (Brahminism), notions of caste, and the subjugation of his people. Singh makes his mission clear in the introduction to the play, when he notes that his first objective in writing the play Shambook Vadh, is that “the Sudras and Mahasudras [become] aware of their rights.” He goes on to say that his second purpose is to “communicate to the high caste people that they should hand over the rights of the original inhabitants which they have kept appropriated since centuries.” This theory of Dalits being original inhabitants also harkens back to Dr. Ambedkar’s philosophy—that, “India’s Untouchables are the descendants of the ancient Buddhists, who were, in turn, the descendants of the pre-Aryan aboriginals of India.”[21] Finally, he notes that his third objective is to “warn the government that if this is not accomplished, a civil war in this country may take place.”[22] Here, we see the tone of agitation and frustration on the part of Singh. Singh ties in similar Dalit calls to action and statements of resistance throughout his play, through the statements of the character, Shambook, who in this telling, is a teacher and social-activist. In this play, Shambook’s mission is by no means hidden. He explicitly declares his goal of mobilizing and liberating the Shudra community when he says, “I have taken the responsibility to liberate my society from mental slavery, superstition, narrow thinking, and foolish acts.”[23,24]

Similar to his statement of mission, Shambook’s speeches in the play echo the sentiments of various Dalit leaders who emphasize the importance of unity within the Dalit community and take solace in the fact that Shudras and Dalits far outnumber their upper-caste oppressors. In the play, Shambook asks his fellow Shudra and student, “Are you only a few? The entire country is inhabited by people of your race…It is the Aryans who are small in number. It is through their tactical manipulations that they are now your rulers.”[25] To this day, there are infinitely more Shudras and Dalits than Brahmins, yet in many ways, those of the fourth varna and those historically and ritually deemed ‘Untouchable,’ are still oppressed by the top one percent. Thus, Shambook’s declaration is still applicable and relevant in a modern context. Soon after Shambook’s initial statement, one of his students, Munder, complains that, “This system of Varna stops us from uniting.”[26] This too, echoes the sentiments of Dalit leaders such as Dr. Ambedkar, who believed that various sub-castes should unite to assert their basic human rights.

Finally, in Shambook Vadh, Singh illustrates blatant corruption within the Brahmin community, and in doing so, suggests the skewed and inaccurate nature of the Shambook story in Valmiki’s original telling. In Singh’s play, the Brahmins plan a conspiracy against Shambook, and in essence, frame him. One says, “We have to propagate that in the reign of Ram, a Sudra is performing ascetic exercises due to which the entire territory is engulfed in sin.”[27] It appears that Singh knows the Uttarakanda well enough to critique it, and is familiar with the fact that in the Valmiki telling, once Ram slays Shambook, the Brahmin boy comes back to life because ‘dharma has been restored.’ Clearly with the Valmiki telling in mind, Singh shows that the manufactured ‘death’ of the Brahmin boy is a complete farce when he depicts the scheming Brahmin reassuring the soon-to-be-dead boy’s father that, “[his] son will be administered a different medicine through which he will gain consciousness.”[28] Clearly, it is not the reestablishment of dharma or the killing of Shambook that restores the Brahmin’s son to life, (as in Valmiki’s telling) but rather, a medicine, because in this play, the whole framing of Shambook is a ploy to suppress the educated Shudras.

Next, I will classify Swami Achhutanand’s play, The Justice of Ram-Rajya in the same category as Singh’s play. Swami Achhutanand was born into the ‘Untouchable’ Chambhar caste in the Mainpuri district of Uttar Pradesh. After becoming disillusioned with the Arya Samaj and its ‘purification rituals,’ he founded the Adi-Hindu movement (original Hindu movement), aimed at uplifting the lower-caste community through social and literary activism. By 1992, his play was published in its twelfth edition and it is still currently sold at Dalit festivals. In her introduction to the play, translator Sarah Beth defines it as, “a subversive narrative [that] provides a Dalit reinterpretation of the time of Ramrajya not as ideal rule but as an age of misrule where the state remained under the upper castes instead of reflecting justice for all.” This succinct but well-articulated description could apply to Singh’s play as well. Ultimately, she defines the text as an “important Dalit counter-perspective.”[29] Similar to Singh, Achhutanand references Brahmins as Aryan oppressors, and conceptualizes the Dalits as the indigenous community, when the Brahmin whose son died laments, “[this] didn’t happen under Aryan rule….There was never such misfortune.”[30] Also similar to Singh’s theory of Shudras being original inhabitants of India, Achhutanand’s Shambooka professes, “I am an original inhabitant of India. Do you not know that my father was robbed by the Brahmins and impoverished? Without self-respect, he worked grazing cattle for a Brahmin household.”[31] Again, we see the rhetoric of the loss-of-self-respect amongst Shudras and Dalits in the work of Achhutanand.

Achhutanand portrays Rama as initially rational, but brainwashed by Brahmins. In this telling, at first Rama says, “I don’t understand Shambuka’s offense. If he is carrying out ascetic practices or yogic achievements in the secluded forest and arousing his friends, how can he be held response (for the death of the Brahmin’s son?)[32] Rama’s initial awareness of Shambuka’s innocence makes his fickleness and change of heart look even worse. Achhutanand characterizes Rama as a king who is misled from his intuition due to his being a puppet of the upper-castes. He appears to have no sense of self or conviction, —an inability to rely on his own moral compass. His impressionableness or favoritism towards Brahmins is evinced when he declares that, “For the auspiciousness of Brahmins, the cruelty [beheading of Shambuka] will be done.”[33] Ultimately, Shambuka chastises Rama for being a mere puppet of the Brahmins, declaring that, “[Rama] is unfortunate and [his] understanding has been corrupted.” Shambuka then complains to Rama, “you are a blind follower of Brahmins!”[34]

Similar to Singh’s Shambook, Achhutanand’s Shambuka is a social activist, lamented by Brahmins as having “broken the caste regulations of society and [having taught] Adi-Dharm (original religion) to the Shudras in opposition to the teaching of the Vedas.” He goes on to despair that “[Shambuka’s] counsel is corrupting lakhs of Shudras through his teachings and now they are arguing with Brahmins.”[35] In this play too, a doorman complains to Rama that, “There is a great army of anti-Dharma adi-nivasis who are destroying the sacrifice of the Brahmins, breaking the sacred thread and cutting of sacred locks of hair.”[36] We also see an irreverent and rebellious nature in this Shambuka, who says to his wife, “I don’t believe that such Dharmashastras apply to me since at the time of their creation, the beliefs and advise of the Adi-Vanshis were not taken into account.”[37] The Shambukas in both Achutanand’s play and Singh’s play take it upon themselves to mobilize and educate their community. Evidently, both playwrights self-consciously reject the traditional Shambuka story in favor of a new narrative that provides Shambuka leadership, agency and a Shudra following.

The play closes with Shambuka’s wife, Tungabhadra, taking the spotlight, critiquing Rama for his most unethical acts. Her final declaration further indicts Rama and exposes his hypocrisy and immoral transgressions, furthering one of Singh’s potential political messages—that the time of Ram-Rajya was not a time of ideal rule, but rather, an era of misrule, corruption, and exploitation of lower castes. In it, Tungabhadra yells, “Unjust king!..When you lived in the forest, you killed innumerable adi-nivasis as if they were worthless because you were misled by Brahmin…When you were in exile you disgraced the widow Surpanakha. Sitting on the throne of the king, you expelled your own pregnant wife Sita into the forest, knowing she was innocent.”[38] In the end, these acts seem to embody the Justice (or lack thereof) of Ram-Rajya.

Implications of the Categorization: So What?

Evidently, all of these previously mentioned interpretations of caste-related passages and events from the story of Rama are similar in that they do not strictly adhere to the Tulsidas or Valmiki tellings, but their motives appear starkly different. While the Ramnamis and perhaps even Kuvempu, want to resolve the dissonance created by casteist passages in The Ramayana tradition, and do so by cutting out passages that do not accord with their beliefs, or in the case of Kuvempu, rewriting the actions of Rama; Singh, and Achhutanand, use their retellings of the Shambuka episode as a call to action for Dalits and Shudras. For the Ramnamis, the Manas seems to be the end – a text to be revered in it of itself, and for Kuvempu, Rama appears worthy of honor, whereas for Singh and Achhutanand, The Ramayana, and more specifically, the Shambuka episode, seem to be a means to fight for their political ends—the liberation of India’s most oppressed.

To conclude, it appears that the examples in the first category are less contradicting the original narrative(s)[39] of The Ramayana to say that they are wrong, but rather reimagining the goodness of Rama as an upright and moral figure to resolve dissonance created by caste saturated passages in the text. On the other hand, the examples in the latter category appear to be using a well-known theme and epic narrative (The Ramayana) as a framework for political resistance. Ultimately, however, regardless of whether The Ramayana is viewed as a sacred text as in the first category, or as a framework to discuss manifestations of caste-based inequality and exploitation as in the latter, it is clear that The Ramayana has proven adaptable to the perspectives of low-casteindividuals. All of the tellers that I have examined exercise control over the text in a way that proves its versatility and fluidity.

Overall, Dalit or marginalized interpretations and counter-narratives of The Ramayana are significant in part, because Dalits and Shudras make up a significantly larger proportion of India’s population than Brahmins or other upper castes. The percentages of Dalits in India range from twenty percent in Uttar Pradesh all the way up to thirty one percent of the population in Punjab, for example.[40] On the national level however, ‘Untouchables’ or Scheduled Castes, constitute sixteen percent of India’s approximately one billion people.[41] There are Dalits in every state in India, and to this day, with controversy surrounding reservations, caste issues are as prevalent as ever.

For Ramayana scholars, however, these findings are valuable, because though they demonstrate diversity within The Ramayana tradition, and various ways of reimagining The Ramayana’s function or utility, they demonstrate The Ramayana’s value for people of various identities and perspectives—even for those who have potentially renounced Hinduism all together and converted out of it. All of these thinkers, whether critiquing The Ramayana and its ‘hero’ Rama or praising him, make reference to The Ramayana and deem it worthy of attention. Clearly, then, it is a key component of the fabric of contemporary Indian culture. Furthermore, the findings in this paper demonstrate that we are in fact, able to debunk, alter, and critique the norms put forth in myths like The Ramayana even if the myths themselves are deemed sacred. These findings show that certain groups have been able to both divinize and deconstruct the epic. As a Ramnami once said, “The Ramayan is so great we cannot possibly damage it; we can only make it better!”[42]

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these retellings are critical to examine for students of religious studies and psychology because they illustrate the way in which narratives and counter-narratives are crucial tools in the construction and reconstruction of identity—particularly as they relate to conceptions of self and other, ‘pure’ or ‘impure’, rakshasa, (Ravana) or dharmic-king (Rama). Embedded within any narrative history or tradition are power hierarchies. Often times, in these myths or histories, to portray one community or individual as meritorious is to portray another as non-meritorious. As we have seen, however, certain low-caste individuals have responded to this lop-sidedness of history, taking ownership of The Ramayana tradition in order to reconstruct it—providing their community merit when in the original telling, they were deprived of personhood. Whereas in Valmiki’s original telling, Shambuka is portrayed as a low-caste person who has wrongfully transgressed his ritual profession and dharma, the playwrights in category two reconstruct the characterization of Shambuka entirely. They ultimately portray him not as a victim of a sacred and logical system, but rather, as a victim of a corrupt and backwards system (the institution of caste). In the latter plays, Shambuka is an agent with his own history, narrative and perspective. He is given a voice, whereas in the Valmiki telling, Shambuka is beheaded before he gets to defend himself. In rewriting Shambuka, playwrights Periyar Lalayee Singh and Swami Achhutanand are reconstructing their contemporary identity in relation to their oppressors and reclaiming the epics that portrayed their community as non-meritorious. They are crafting a new identity for their people—one grounded in ancient national myths, but divergent from their traditional roles.



1. Asceticism or penance.
2. Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman, tr. The Ramayana of Valmiki, .Vol. VII: Uttara-kanda, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).
3. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore all plays by low-caste individuals that address the Shambuka incident, so I have chosen to examine three plays that I view as clear and compelling representations of the two categories.
4. Romila Thapar, as quoted in Phillip Lutgendorf, “All in the (Raghu) Family: A Video Epic in Cultural Context,” in Media and the Transformation of Religion in South Asia, ed. Lawrence A. Babb and Susan S. Wadley et al. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 246.
5. Ramdas Lamb, “Personalizing the Ramayan: Ramnamis and Their Use of the Ramcaritmanas,” in Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, ed. Paula Richman. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 238.
6. Ramdas Lamb, Rapt in the Name: The Ramnamis, Ramnam, and Untouchable Religion in Central India (Albany: State University of New York, 2002), 40.
7. Lamb, Rapt in the Name, 240.
8. Devotional songs.
9. Lamb, “Personalizing the Ramayan” 240.
10. Though the Ramnamis do not explicitly address the Shambuka incident (because they are going off the Manas), they do grapple with the pervasiveness of caste hierarchy in the Manas, and in light of their understanding of Rama’s goodness, we can infer that they would likely support the fact that Rama is not the kind of ruler who would kill Shambuka out of caste prejudice.
11. David Reese, “Big Blazing Monkey Justice: Hanuman as a Resource of Social Liberation Movements” The Brown Journal of Religion 1, no 2 (2006): 28.
12. Lamb, “Personalizing the Ramayan” 251.
13. Kuppali Venkatappa Puttappa [Kuvempu]. “Shudra Tapasvi” [translated from Kannada into English by Girish Karnad and Marula Siddappa], pp Ramayana Stories in Modern South India, ed. Paula Richman. (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 2007.) pp 129.
14. Paula Richman, “Why Can’t a Shudra Perform Asceticism? Shambuka in Three Modern South Indian Plays” in The Ramayana Revisited ed. Mandakranta Bose et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 128.
15. Kuvempu, as cited in Richman, 132.
16. Kuvempu,, as cited in Richman, 132.
17. Kuvempu,, as cited in Richman, 132.
18. Paula Richman, “Why Can’t a Shudra Perform Asceticism?” 134.
19. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar is the beloved leader of the twentieth century Dalit movement in Maharashtra. He led a mass conversion of ‘Untouchables’ to Buddhism in 1956. For more background on Dr. Ambedkar’s beliefs, consult: Gail Omvedt, Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India (New York: Penguin Books, 2008).
20. Periyar Lalayee Sing and Ram Pal, “Shambook Vadh” [The Killing of Shambook], [translated from Hindi by Badri Narayan and A.R. Misra], pp 150-189. in Badri Narayan and A.R. Misra, Multiple Marginalities: An Anthology of Identified Dalit Writings. (New Delhi, India: Manohar Publishers, 2004,) 169.
21. Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King, Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 55.
22. Singh, “Shambook Vadh” 152.
23. Singh, “Shambook Vadh” 164.
24. If future research reveals that Singh was in fact, an Ambedkarite Buddhist, it would be worth observing that Singh’s mission in writing the play seems to echo the goals of Dr. Ambedkar, who also critiques the superstitions of Hinduism, its rituals, and the mental slavery and rhetoric of self-degradation that Dalits were forced or brainwashed into. In a similar tone, in 1944, in one of his essays, Dr. Ambedkar writes that Hindus were the “sick men “of India, likely prone to superstitions. We could hear Singh’s Shambook encouraging his people to, in the words of Dr. Ambedkar, “Educate, agitate, and organize!”
25. Singh, “Shambook Vadh“157.
26. Singh, “Shambook Vadh” 157.
27. Singh, “Shambook Vadh“166.
28. Singh, “Shambook Vadh” 171.
29. Swami Achhutanand, “The Justice of Ram-Rajya” [translated from Hindi by Sarah Beth] in Nationalism in the Vernacular: Hindi, Urduu, and the Literature of Indian Freedom. ed. Shobna Nijhawan, Ranikhet, (India: Permanent Black Publisher, 2010.)
30. Achhutanand, “The Justice of Ram-Rajya” 448.
31. Achhutanand, “The Justice of Ram-Rajya” 453.
32. Achhutanand, “The Justice of Ram-Rajya” 450.
33. Achhutanand, “The Justice of Ram-Rajya” 453.
34. Achhutanand, “The Justice of Ram-Rajya” 460.
35. Achhutanand, “The Justice of Ram-Rajya” 450.
36. Achhutanand, “The Justice of Ram-Rajya” 451.
37. Achhutanand, “The Justice of Ram-Rajya” 455.
38. Achhutanand, “The Justice of Ram-Rajya” 459.
39. Tulsidas and Valmiki’s tellings are the original narratives I am referring to.
40. This is an extreme case.
41. Human Rights Watch, Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s Untouchables (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), 23. This figure translates to the fact that there were over 160 million Dalits or ‘Untouchables’ in India as of 2004.
42. Lamb, “Personalizing the Ramayan” 251.



Emma Leiken is a recent graduate of Oberlin College where she studied religious studies with a focus on South Asia. Emma is currently in India on a Fulbright-Nehru research fellowship where she is studying the intersections of caste, class, religion and gender in the Ambedkarite Buddhist movement in Mumbai and the Konkan. She is collecting the oral histories of Ambedkarite Buddhist women.

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