Tulsidas, amongst the most important of the saint-poets of the medieval bhakti movement in northern India, is also Hindi’s most renowned poet. In the sixteenth century, he wrote his Ramcharitmanas , a retelling of the story of Ram, the legendary prince of Avadh. Composed in Avadhi, the spoken language of the people, it enjoyed instant popular appeal. It soon became-and remains-the dominant and accepted version of Ram’s story in the Hindi-speaking north.
Rohini Chowdhury’s elegant translation brings Tulsidas’s magnum opus vividly to life.The translation also includes a comprehensive introduction to the poet and his work.
Amongst the most important of the saint-poets of the medieval bhakti movement in northern India, Tulsidas is also Hindi's most renowned poet. In 1574, he commenced the composition of his Ramcharitmanas, a retelling of the story of Ram, the legendary prince of Avadh. Tulsi's epic poem is unanimously regarded as the greatest achievement of Hindi literature, and is a significant addition to the Ramayana corpus. Composed in the vernacular Avadhi-a literary dialect of eastern Hindi-and therefore accessible to everyone without the need for learned intervention by the Brahmin, it became, and remains, the dominant and accepted version of Ram's story in the Hindi-speaking north.
My own engagement with Tulsidas began one crisp autumn night fifty years ago in a small town by the banks of the Ganga, when I saw my first performance of the Ram Lila. The sky was sprinkled with stars but I had eyes only for the drama unfolding upon the crude wooden stage before me, where the story had reached a critical point: Hanuman's tail was to be set on fire. The sets were crude, the costumes garish, the acting unsophisticated-but the story transcended all such concerns, such was its magic and power. I did not know it then, but that was also my first intimate encounter with the Ramcharitmanas, upon which the Ram Lila is based. Growing up, Tulsi's poem was always around me-chanted in the homes of friends or neighbours, sung on the radio, or the theme of plays and dance dramas. So when the opportunity came to translate it into English for Penguin India, I accepted it with alacrity-and the last five years that I have spent walking behind Tulsi, one of the greatest literary minds of all time, have been a pleasure and a privilege. My translation does not do justice to Tulsi's extraordinary poetic genius. His use of wordplay, his rhymes and alliteration, and the sheer musicality of his poem I have found impossible to capture in English. I have therefore contented myself with being as clear and accurate as possible in my translation, and to convey, to the best of my ability, the scale and grandeur of his great poem.
The Ramayana tradition
For at least the last two and a half thousand years, poets, writers, folk performers, and religious and social reformers have drawn upon the story of Ram as a source of inspiration. It has been told again and again in countless forms and dozens of languages, making it one of the most popular and enduring stories in the world. More than any other hero, Ram has been upheld as dharma personified, the epitome of righteousness, and his actions as the guide for right conduct. In recent times, the story has provided inspiration for films, novels, and in the late 1980s, a weekly television series watched by more than eighty million viewers.
The oldest and most influential surviving literary telling of the story of Ram is the Sanskrit epic called the Ramayana. Composed sometime during the first millennium BCE, and consisting of some 50,000 lines in verse set in seven kands or books, it is attributed to the poet Valmiki, and is widely regarded as the 'original'.' The influence of Valmiki's Ramayana has been so profound that the title of his epic has come to denote the entire tradition, from oral and folk performances to literary texts and translations. Within this rich and varied tradition also lie the Ramayana songs from Telangana, the folk performances of the Ram Lila in northern India, the eleventh-century Tamil Iramavataram (The Incarnation of Ram') by Kamban, and Tulsidas's Ramcharitmanas.
The rise of bhakti
Scholars of the Ramayana tradition hold the view that Ram was originally a human hero and was only later raised to the status of avatar of Vishnu. In the five central books of Valmiki's epic, Ram is portrayed as an earthly prince: though endowed with godlike courage, fortitude and compassion, his exploits are those of a human being. It is only in the first and last books of the poem-which are considered to be later additions to Valmiki's epic-that Ram is explicitly declared to be an incarnation of Vishnu on earth.
Soon after the beginning of the Common Era, Ram began to be increasingly regarded as an avatar of Vishnu. At about the same time, a new attitude towards the divine began to replace austere monistic meditation, sacrificial rites and polytheistic practices. This was bhakti, or intense emotional attachment and love towards a chosen, personal god and his avatars-particularly Vishnu and his earthly incarnations, Ram and Krishna-and joyous and public worship of that god. Bhakti assumed a dualistic relationship between the devotee and his god, as opposed to the monistic ideal of the Advaita or non-dualistic school of philosophy. Its proponents considered the way of bhakti (bhakti-marg) superior to other means of achieving salvation such as knowledge or good works or ascetic disciplining of the body; it was also open to everyone, regardless of their caste, class or sex. With the advent of bhakti, Ram's transition from godlike prince to God became complete. This was a critical transformation of the Ram story-and it is within this bhakti tradition that Tulsi wrote his Ramcharitmanas.
The bhakti movement was characterized by its emphasis on the use of vernacular languages, making its teachings directly accessible to the common people, regardless of class or caste. This was in stark contrast to traditional practice, within which Sanskrit, regarded as the sacred language, was used for all important literary and religious texts. Sanskrit was thus the preserve of an elite few, typically high-caste Brahmins, who would study, interpret and explain the texts to the common people. The earliest bhakti texts to appear were in Tamil-these were devotional poems in praise of Shiv and Vishnu, composed by saint-musicians, the Nayanars and Alvars, of southern India between the seventh and the tenth centuries CE. Also written in Tamil was Kamban's Iramavataram. Composed in the eleventh century, it is amongst the earliest vernacular Ramayanas. It became, and still is, the definitive version of the Ram story in the Tamil-speaking areas of the subcontinent. The bhakti movement soon spread northwards, appearing in texts such as the Bhagavata Purana, composed in Sanskrit in the tenth century and celebrating devotion to Krishna. More vernacular Ramayanas were composed. Amongst the more noteworthy of these were the thirteenth-century Telugu Ramayana of Buddharaja and the fifteenth-century Bengali Sriram Panchali by Krittibas. In Hindi, the bhakti movement reached its zenith in the sixteenth century, with Tulsidas's Ramcharitmanas.
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