Complaint Against Anti-Rama Song

Complaint Against Anti-Rama Song
in Secondary Schools

We bring to notice Prof. Susan Wadley’s work emerging from two National Endowment for the Humanities grants (1994 and 1997) received by her to train high school teachers to teach the Indian epic Ramayana to American students. Besides India, Ramayana is also the sacred epic of Thailand, Indonesia and many other parts of Asia. While the project generated useful course material, it also included what are clearly partisan and political readings of the epic, as well as outright inflammatory ‘cheap shots’ at a sacred text.

This complaint is on behalf of United States citizens and parents of school children. Hinduism and Sikhism (which also worships Rama) are no longer merely about a far away exotic land that Americans have little to do with. We have Hindus and Sikhs right here in our classrooms today, amongst our office co-workers and as our neighbors. It is irresponsible for any multicultural school to introduce a protest song against Hindus and Sikhs that includes hate speech alleging that “Muslims were targeted”, or that certain people are “enslaved to form a monkey army” with the purported intention to “attack Muslims”. What does this do to foster mutual respect and understanding among different ethnic and religious communities in America’s sensitive tapestry, now represented in classrooms? Should Government funds be used to create such racially and religiously inflammatory teaching materials, denigrating to one’s classmates’ sensitivities, ironically in the name of multiculturalism?

We understand that academic freedom, and the freedom of speech, allows us all in this country to espouse ideas that may be unpalatable to some. These ideas could be politically or culturally biased or even prejudiced. However, such bias about others’ religions and religious ideals, others’ sacred texts and spirituality, when it is presented to high school students by non-experts (high school teachers), would lead to a warped understanding of others’ history and religions and to unintended consequences, including stereotyping and hatred of minority groups.

The particular version of the Ramayana that Prof. Wadley includes in the lesson plans, and that she says is her favorite version of the many songs on the God-king Rama and the Ramayana, was composed by an anti-Hindu activist. This particular “song” is included in the essay titled, “The Ramayana and the Study of South Asia” (“Education About Asia”, volume 2, number 1, Spring 1997, page 36, by Susan S Wadley).

Prof. Wadley says, “My favorite lessons are those that most directly challenge the ways in which South Asia is often taught. Hence the final lesson on low caste views of the Ramayana presents a reality too often ignored in western treatments of Hinduism and India. The low caste folk song presented in this lesson gives a view of the Ramayana not commonly found in western texts…. This view of the Ramayana as oppressing women and the indigenous pre-Aryan inhabitants challenges us to remember that India has never been the rigid society so often portrayed, but rather one in which multiple voices speak, often challenging the superiority of those at the top. And it is through the many tellings of the Ramayana over time, in different historical and social circumstances, that this message is conveyed so clearly” .

The professor considers this made-up hate song that is not part of the Ramayana or any of its standard interpretations, as being her ‘favorite’. This political diatribe against Hindus, and this false and mischievous characterization of Rama as the oppressor of women and of “lower caste” Hindus, and of Rama as a slave-holder and outsider (Aryan other as opposed to the native Dravidian) is not only an attack against Rama, who the majority of Hindus and Sikhs hold as the incarnation of God, but could also serve to create and fuel political, religious, and cultural rifts in India and feed American students complex Indian political issues in a simplistic and insidious manner.

We provide refutations to the claims made in this “song” to support our argument that not only is it a false depiction of both the epic and Indian history but a dangerous attempt at inserting one’s political agenda into American classrooms. We wish to point out that in an introductory course on world religions for young minds, it is important to give a clear, balanced, and sympathetic portrayal of a tradition (especially when it is a tradition to which they don’t belong). From this base, students can later explore more sophisticated and complex issues. The average American teenager has very little understanding of Hinduism. These students have no idea of who Rama is, let alone his significance for Hindus and Sikhs. In an introductory unit, they will be merely struggling to grasp the bare outlines of Hindu and Sikh practice and philosophy. Given this, we cannot imagine the students reciting a “song” that views the Ramayana as a tool for oppressing women or lower caste people. They would probably imagine that this is what most Hindus and Sikhs think of Rama and that is what they believe in and practice.

This same principle carries over to the study of other religions: for example, Christianity or Islam. Some of the scholars who have studied the Bible have read all or part of it as being patriarchal and oppressing women, Jews, homosexuals and blacks. There are others who criticize its violence and the way it is used to oppress the poor. Still others question the authenticity of the Bible and the real-life events of Jesus. Of course, most Christians see the Bible as containing God’s words and would be horrified at the “deconstruction” of their sacred text. Would we provide such portrayals of the Bible to our secondary school students, especially dramatized in performances of hate songs in the manner recommended by Prof. Wadley? Christians would object vociferously at what they would call an unfair portrayal of their faith. Islamists and Muslims would similarly protest if one were to characterize Prophet Mohammed as a jihadist and an oppressor of women, even if that were supported by textual references.

Scholars can debate controversial views on the Ramayana and the Bible all they want. We just don’t find it necessary to import such debates into classrooms where children are beginning to understand the basic contours of each religion. The question that Prof. Wadley should have addressed is this: if I were a Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jew, or Moslem, how would I want my faith to be understood by those outside it? We believe she has not adequately understood this problem or has deliberately chosen to ignore it. Were this simply a scholarly interpretation, this would be an unfortunate, but not a public, issue.

India and the U.S. are the world’s two biggest and vibrant democracies, and it is only recently that there has been an effort to bridge the differences in perception that each has had about the other over the past fifty years. In such times, it is important that we are all engaged in constructive and positive work that will help build better relations and understanding among and between the peoples of the two countries. We therefore urge you to request Prof. Wadley to remove this particular portion of her Ramayana instructions in the relevant books and instructional material she has provided to high school teachers. We are not asking Prof. Wadley to eschew her brand of politics or stop publishing her scholarly articles. What we are asking is that divisive, politically charged interpretations of a religious tradition not be made part of American high school students’ curriculum. A political activist should not turn social studies into a platform for social engineering, and Government funds should not be used in this way. Since her project is federally funded, it is a public issue that we feel we cannot ignore, especially since her interpretation of this epic goes directly against the spirit of the President’s Executive Order #13125, whereby it received funding.

Appendix I

From “Spotlight on Ramayana – An Enduring Tradition”, Chapter V.
UNIT 25, LESSON 2 (Pages 335 through 337):

Teacher Background
This lesson looks at one way in which caste and the ideology of caste are protested in India today. It is important that students in the US realize that caste is not accepted by all Indians, although that is the popular perception. In this protest song, sung by a group of untouchables in northern India, the Ramayana is the vehicle for protest. It refers to Hindu-Muslim conflicts over the past decade, conflicts which are thought by government and untouchable alike to be started by agitators who seek to destabilize the government. (See
also lesson x, this volume. ) Those most hurt by these conflicts are the poor who depend on daily wages to survive. If their town has a week-long curfew, they have no income for a week. The rich can survive these closings, but the poor cannot.

The song also refers to a popular belief that the Ramayana describes the conflict between India’s native peoples and the Aryans. Hence Ravana becomes the hero, the monkeys are the aborigines (who become low castes and untouchables) and Rama is guilty of warring on the weak.

Distribute Worksheet 2. Read and discuss this song in class. Students should be asked to think about comparable traditions in our country (rap, rock and country music all conveying political, anti-elite traditions). They should also discuss any similarities with our history.
If you live near an area with Indian stores, you might seek out a store with tape cassettes and ask if they have any cassettes of Indian rap. One particularly popular singer is Apache Indian, a singer born of Indian descent in Birmingham, England, who uses a modified rap style to sing social protest songs about life in India and England. His songs deal with topics like arranged marriages and caste. They would be effective vehicles for reaching your students.

For homework, ask each student to write a song or story about caste in India. They could write a story of Shabari’s lineage. Or they could compose a song (in any style) about the evils of caste.

What Role Does Caste Play in the Ramayana and Indians’
Interpretations of it?

Appendix II

Worksheet 2
Read this song sung by an untouchable in north India.
The rulers who control all knowledge,
Claim the Ramayana to be India’s history
And called us many names – demons, low castes, untouchables.
But we were the aborigines of this land.
Listen to our story.
Today we are called the dalits – the oppressed.
Once the Aryans on their horses invaded this land.
Then we who are the natives became the displaced.
Oh Rama, Oh Rama, You became the God and we the demons.
You portrayed our Hanuman as a monkey,
Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.
You enslaved us to form a monkey army,
Those you could not subjugate
You called a rakshasa a demon.
But we are the forest rakshak – the protectors.
You invented the hierarchy of caste
Through your laws of Manu, the first man.
Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.
And you trampled on the rights of women.
You made your wife Sita undergo the ordeal of fire
To prove her chastity.
Such were your male laws, Oh Rama.
Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.
When Shambuka, the Untouchable
Tried to gain knowledge,
You beheaded him, Oh Rama.
Thus did you crush those who tried to rise above their caste.
Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.
Days passed, years and centuries,
But our lives remained the same.
We skinned your cattle,
So that you can wear shoes.
We clean your gutters,
So that you can stay clean.
Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.
Did you ever even ask, Oh Rama,
What our caste is?
Did you ever even ask
What our religion is?
Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.
Independence dawned.
It began with the rule of the constitution.
The author of the constitution Dr. Ambedkar
Framed the constitution around secular ideals.
The castle of caste privileges began to crumble.
No longer could the elite skim
The milk of religious exploitation.
Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.
But poverty grew and to divert the poor
From their real need, a new enemy was found.
Muslims were targeted and “taught a lesson”.
To destroy Lanka, Oh Rama, you
Formed us into a monkey army.
And today you want us,
The working majority,
To form a new monkey army
And attack Muslims.
Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.

Appendix III

Rama is depicted as an “Aryan” and thus an outsider. We note that the Aryan Invasion Theory is itself a colonial and racist construct of the 19th century, and therefore such a “song” cannot be a part of the folklore of Indian tribals. This “song” therefore foists colonial prejudices on an already suffering population, forcing them to look at themselves through the eyes of one of their historical oppressors.

Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana was himself a member of one of the “lower castes” (Please note that “lower” and “upper” castes are modern terms recently coined. There is no Indian term for “caste”. The term jati has been conflated with caste but is clearly very different from the Western conception and definition of caste. There are literally thousands of jatis in India, and the closest one can come to describing them is a “community” or “guild”). Superimposing this construct onto a sacred text is a work of imagination.

The Shambuka episode included in the “song” is considered by experts to be a later day interpolation in the Ramayana. That particular episode is at variance with other sections of the story, for example, the Shabari episode. The Shambuka episode occurs in the Uttarakanda which is considered a later addition to the Ramayana as a whole. Regarding the characterization of the Rama-Ravana Yuddha (battle) as a war between Dravidians and Aryans, the following points should be noted:

    1. Tradition is unanimous that Rama was a Kshatriya (of the warrior class) whereas Ravana
    was a descendant of Maharshi Pulyatsya and was therefore a Brahmin. The Jyotirlinga temple at Rameshwaram owes its existence to the expiation performed by Lord Rama for the killing of
    Brahmins like Ravana.
    2. Rama is depicted as a dark man whereas Ravana is depicted as a fair-skinned person in the epic. If Dravidians were dark and Aryans were fair, then Rama should be a Dravidian and Ravana should be an Aryan.
    3. Ravana’s chief queen was Mandodari, who hailed from Mandor in Rajasthan, part of “Aryan” country. Therefore, even if Ravana was a “Dravidian”, it still follows that “Aryan-Dravidian” marriages were prevalent in those days.
    4. Ravana is depicted in the epic as a scholar of Sanskrit. When the monkey-God Hanuman went to Lanka, he is said to have seen smoke emanating from the Vedic altars in the homes of the citizens of Lanka. Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, also states that Hanuman heard the recitations of Vedas from the homes of Lankans. In short, the Lankans were Aryans!
    5. Barring Rama and his brother Lakshmana, the entire “Vanara-sena” (army) was comprised of
    the natives of South India. Therefore, the war could very well be characterized as one between Dravidians. By no stretch of imagination can the battle/war between Rama and Ravana could be characterized as one between Aryans and Dravidians. It is said that when Rama first met Hanuman, the latter addressed Rama in such mellifluous speech that Valmiki makes Rama say that Hanuman has to be a scholar in the Trayvidya to be able to speak so well.
    6. According to anthropologists, Sri Lanka was originally inhabited by a people called Veddas who were not Dravidian. Thereafter, the North Indians from Gujarat and Tamils from the South migrated to Sri Lanka. This view of anthropologists puts a big question mark on the Aryan-Dravidian theory propagated by Christian missionaries and racist historians.
    7. Contrary to the impression this “folk song” likes to portray, Rama is a hallowed figure amongst numerous tribal communities in almost every part of India.
    The reference to tribes being treated as ‘monkeys’ and then being used to ‘attack Muslims’ is highly irresponsible and inflammatory. Besides, there is no basis for it.

If the scholar wishes to portray social issues facing dalits, she should also portray their plight today at the hands of Christians as well as Hindus, as explained at the following web site:

Some anthropologists such as Prof Wadley often fall into the trap of labeling all of India’s problems as ‘Hindu’, whereas they would not label the US’ very high incidence of child abuse, rape, massive prison population, drug and other addictions, and high incidence of clinical depression as ‘Judeo-Christian’ problems. Western scholars emphasize caste as the defining characteristic of Hinduism, often to the exclusion of other qualities. However, if they called it ‘class’ rather than ‘caste’, it would compel students to compare with the US’ own racially segregated churches, white supremacy groups, racial profiling, economic stratification, and civil rights issues. America’s caste system is implicit and subtle rather than explicit and publicly acknowledged, but it is no less harmful. Americans label their social categories as demographic groups rather than castes, but this does not make the problems disappear. Often, social science studies scholars place the West above such ‘primitive’ practices so as to ridicule non-Western traditions. This exacerbates the pre-existing prejudices in our society when in fact scholars should act responsibly rather than using sensationalism in the classroom.