In Kerala, Leftist Sanskrit scholars to hold ‘alternative’ Ramayana readings
The culture wars shine a fresh light on Kerala’s vibrant political reality, a year before the general election
Bengaluru: In a first, Leftist Sanskrit scholars in Kerala will hold “alternative” readings of Ramayana in all 14 districts starting next week, to combat the religious version of the Indian epic on Lord Rama taught at temples by pro-Right speakers.
The culture wars shine a fresh light on Kerala’s vibrant political reality, a year before the general election. While a rising Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) opposition is trying to use temples to engage with Hindu voters in search of a political viability, the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, continues to reinvent itself to stay politically relevant.
Reading Ramayana in the last Malayalam month, Karkkidakam (July-August), is a long-standing tradition among Hindu families in Kerala, especially among the upper castes. But the CPM thinks that the Sangh Parivar camp is making a concerted effort to use such events to push Hindutva polemics and carve an electoral niche.
“They are making it into a religious ritual, reading their version of Ramayana, arranging visits to temples and so on. They are seeing an opening, to draw themselves closer to the Hindu voters by communally polarizing them,” according to a Kerala-based central committee member of the party, who did not want to be named.
“The Sangh Parivar has created a hegemonic structure over Ramayana-like epics. We want to problematize it. Ramayana needs a dialectical interpretation. Someone has to bring out the plurality and philosophy of the text, without giving it a communal colour,” said one of the speakers listed, Sunil P. Elayidom, a Leftist and Sanskrit scholar who recently made a splash with his series of talks on Mahabharata as a “secular” epic.
Two years ago, the CPM had taken out Sri Krishna Jayanti rallies with tableaux of Hindu gods, along with those of communist icons Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin.
However, in its refusal to cede ground to the Right on Ramayana, the communists see a quandary. The party is worried if the move could make them look leaning towards the cultural right, a disadvantage when it comes to keeping intact their traditional Left voters who value secular ethos. So, it is distancing itself from the event publically, as per the leader quoted above.
Notably, after the buzz on reading Ramayana with a communist lens hit social media on Wednesday, CPM’s national chief Sitaram Yechury called the Kerala unit head Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, to enquire about the event. Soon after, Balakrishnan put out a statement refuting any involvement of CPM with the event. “The CPM is not celebrating Ramayana Month. The organizer of the event is not under the CPM but an independent organization,” it said.
However, party insiders and the organizers—a newly formed body of Left-leaning Sanskrit scholars called Samskrita Sangham (Sanskrit Group)—admitted to Mint, requesting not to be named, that the readings will happen, as one organizer put it, “with the blessings of CPM.”
“Ramayana is a cultural repository of the world. But a particular group is using it to spread their divisive agenda and to polarise the people. They want to carve an electorate and we want to resist it,” said an organizer, requesting not to be named.