Dussehra: Some Celebrate Ravana

Nearly simultaneously, it’s the High Holy Days, Eid (last week), and now in the Hindu tradition, Dussehra, the celebration of the defeat of Ravana by Rama. (For my “Bong” friends, I believe it was also just Durga Puja over the weekend.) But not everyone celebrates religious holidays the same way. Case in point:

ravana icon dussehra.jpg

I was intrigued to see a headline from an Indian newspaper offering a surprising twist on Dussehra: “Dalits celebrate ‘Ravana Mela’ to oppose ‘Dussehra’.” There isn’t a whole lot there to explain how this has come about, or how widespread it is (the article only indicates that the group involved is the “Dalit Panther” organization in Kanpur, and that it’s been going on for about ten years). Another big question that remains unanswered from the news coverage I have seen is how the local community reacts to the pro-Ravana interpretation of Dussehra these folks are presenting. Is there active opposition, or is it tolerated? (Wikipedia lists a number of Ravana Temples in various places throughout India, including Kanpur, though it’s not clear whether caste is a factor in Ravana worship in general.)

Though I haven’t been able to find very much information about the “anti-Dussehra” practitioners, they do raise some interesting issues. One is their premise that the Ramayana is a caste narrative.

There is a hallowed tradition of differing interpretations of texts like the Ramayana in India. For instance, I know from reading Paula Richman’s work that there has been a long tradition, going back to the 1950s, of Tamil/Dravidian activists interpreting Rama’s quest as an anti-Dravidian crusade. In an article from the groundbreaking anthology, Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition, Richman wrote about a Tamil activist named E.V. Ramasami, who published a Ravana-centric Anti-Ramayana in 1956, and actually went to jail for it. (See more about E.V. Ramasami’s later years at Wikipedia). However, the main focus in E.V. Ramasami’s approach, if I remember correctly, was regionalism: he saw Ravana as a defender of the “South” against Rama’s “Northern” incursions (caste was, admittedly, also a major factor for him). The Dalit Panthers are doing something a bit different.

But I wonder whether the caste interpretation is just in the mind of Dalit activists, or whether it goes the other way as well. Is there also a tradition amongst high-caste Hindus of interpreting the conflict between Rama and Ravana along caste lines? If so, that might help explain where the Dalit activists are coming from. Then again, if Rama vs. Ravana is really just a broader “good vs. evil” struggle, the injection of caste might be seen as idiosyncratic and unproductive.

106 thoughts on “Dussehra: Some Celebrate Ravana

  1. Yajnavalkya -

    The comparison is good with how the holocaust and the World War II is studied in Germany or slavery in the US (though there should be an african-american museum in the nat’l mall) and perhaps also Native Americans in the US.

    I don’t live in India, and don’t follow the news and politics that much, so I’m not sure what the answer is to this:

    There should also be an open discourse (and museums and school lessons) on another way Indians degraded and subjugated other Indians – and that would be within the caste system. I know from my own historical background that often high-caste Hindus treated lower-caste Hindus worst than they treated Muslims or Christians.

    That also should be an open discourse to help the country heal from that history, with museums documenting this history. But if that is already going on please enlighten. me. I also understand that there’s much more flexibility to caste system than is often protrayed in the West and its so diverse (a caste that considered low in area could be considered high in another, etc; there are castes that are specific to a region, etc)

  2. There should also be an open discourse (and museums and school lessons) on another way Indians degraded and subjugated other Indians – and that would be within the caste system. I know from my own historical background that often high-caste Hindus treated lower-caste Hindus worst than they treated Muslims or Christians.

    The problem is that the term “caste system” is hamfisted and imprecise. It doesn’t really summarize what people were talking about or put it in any sort of context. So people say “caste system OOGA BOOGA!” and end up lumping together several different concepts into one catch-all and then assume the whole thing is discriminatory on top of that without any real critical examination. It would be like saying the US should eliminate the “race system.” What would that even mean or entail? I’m not even sure it would be possible.

    For now, India’s school curriculum should cover it as it is just because it’s better than ignoring it, but India’s academic community really ought to start trying to develop a better vocabulary and a more accurate paradigm to discuss the institution than they do now. They’re still parroting foreign viewpoints that haven’t been critically examined. That way, maybe sometime in the future we can have a more mature conversation on the issue that doesn’t get bogged down or compromised by shoddy semantics.

  3. but India’s academic community really ought to start trying to develop a better vocabulary and a more accurate paradigm to discuss the institution than they do now. They’re still parroting foreign viewpoints that haven’t been critically examined

    From what I know and been exposed to (lots of South Asian anthropologists in history/political/anthro courses in college) I agree. I didn’t know what else to call it. What I meant by “caste system” is the discrimination (civil) civil and human rights violations, and violence perpetuated in the name of caste.

  4. civil and human rights violations, and violence perpetuated in the name of caste.

    Civil and human rights violations yes but populist violence rarely happens in the name of caste. If it happens the perpetrators are fringe groups and the majority generally disapproves of it.

  5. Kolanuttechie

    I suggest you study history a little bit. Here’s a good starting point for you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Hindus.

    There is nothing disingenuous about my statement. If anything, I have gone to great lengths to note that the past is the past, and that today’s people should not be tried for the crimes of fanatic conquerors who most likely also oppressed their forbears as well. However, that does not mean that history should be whitewashed and forgotten. It is this history that is often conveniently forgotten or manipulated in modern debates.

    More tragically, we see this in modern day Pakistan and Bangladesh, with the entire hindu community virtually wiped out in the former and on a similar trajectory in the latter. While it is well and good that the UN has time to equate caste discrimination with human rights abuse, how is it that it doesn’t even have time to draw attention to the ongoing genocide there? And that is the crux of my point. Much has been made by leftist commentators here about “hindu grievance mongering”, but if genocide isn’t a legitimate cause then what is? The fact remains that just as you pointed out concerns regarding discussion of such a history in India and whether certain communities would accept it, we see the same head in the sand strategy on hindu genocide not only in the Indian press, but in the west. The fact remains, one cannot pretend to be an “advocate for human beings, not members of any one religious community” when one doesn’t live up to this in a manner anywhere near approaching consistency. So with respect to your point about whether certain communities would accept portrayals about Aurangzeb, et al, I refer you to my above statement: “secularism doesn’t mean only hindus have to be secular”. Just as caste discrimination must be studied, so should the violence of the Sultanate/Mughal period irrespective of what the related community may think or accept.

    Ultimately, the aim of all this isn’t to stir up conflict, but rather, to put it to rest. As was pointed out, the African American community in the United States and the Native American population have tremendous grievances in the form of Slavery and Genocide. Nevertheless, the public education system there requires those topics to be studied to promote understanding on all sides and to prevent communal violence from taking form. India should take a page from that book.

    Kumar,

    I think we have to turn to the Mundaka Upanishad for this one: Satyameva jayate na anritham.

    PS You are right on the importance of open discourse. Moreover, I do think it is critical that hindus examine how they treat each other (especially how dalit communities are treated). Frankly, I think some sort of dalit reconciliation commission should emerge within the Sangh Parivar if it truly is sincere about moving past caste (there are a number of individual Parivar members who have wholeheartedly rejected caste and its associated discrimination by dropping community-linked surnames such as Tarun Vijay). Discrimination and violence against dalits–predominantly in rural areas–is something very real that must be tackled. This is not meant to beat hinduism with a stick–after all, serfs in medieval europe were tied to the land and had little if any rights (especially those in Russia who needed the permission of nobles to marry); class is something that exists in all civilizations since a division of labor is a key aspect of societies. However, just as those societies modernized, it is time hindu society do the same. There is no need to be overly apologetic about the existence of the caste system, after all, unlike the west, hindus never practiced chattel slavery. As you noted, for many periods there was a significant degree of flexibility. This is where it is important to make the distinction between varna and jati (caste is derived from a portuguese word for pure). All the four varnas (but really five considering the contributions of dalits) had static roles to play in societies, but jatis (individual communities typically associated with a societal function) could move to different varnas depending on the specific occupation of its members. Frankly, the last word on such mobility of jatis has yet to be written and the historical evaluation of that aspect has only just begun. Nevertheless, there needs to be a recognition that like the patrician and plebeian classes of ancient Rome such divisions should have no place in modern Hindu society–at the very least in the form of discrimination.