It might seem an impossible task, but scholars say bread crumbs can be found in stories and oral histories

A government committee in Karnataka has a job at hand to ascertain the caste of sage Valmiki
news Caste Thursday, August 20, 2015 - 17:14

When nobody can agree whether Ramayana is history, fiction, or fictionalized writing of real events, how does one begin to figure out whether Valmiki, who is believed to have introduced the oral Ramayana tradition into the written word, was born into a Brahmin family or not? That’s the job that awaits a committee of experts in Karnataka, and they say it’s not impossible. The Kannada book “Valmiki Yaaru?” (Who is Valmiki?) authored by K S Narayanacharya was banned on August 28, 2014, after the Nayaka (Beda) community in the state protested against the book’s claim that Valmiki was born into a Brahmin family. Several eminent Kannada writers had expressed disagreement with the author’s views but said that the government should not have banned the book. 

The Nayaka (also known as Beda or Valmiki) community, which is a hunting community and scholars, have maintained that Valmiki was of the hunting community. Under pressure from the Nayaka community, and also its own party members, the government hurriedly banned the book on grounds that it had hurt the sentiments of a community and sought to spread enmity between communities. The ban didn’t even last a year. On July 15, 2015, the government withdrew the ban order after it was challenged in the Karnataka High Court. The author and the publishers Sahitya Prakashana of Hubballi challenged the order in the High Court. Principal Secretary of the Department of Kannada and Culture B G Nandakumar said that the court sought to know on what basis the state government had banned the book without consulting an expert committee. 

Read: The politics of the times decides whether a Perumal Murugan, S L Bhyrappa, or Muddupalani get hounded or not On the directions of the Court, the government has set up a 14-member committee of scholars and writers to look into whether or not Valmiki was a Brahmin, and submit a report to the department within two months. Based on this, the state government will decide whether or not to enforce a ban. Cultural process and oral history Head of the committee Hampa Nagarajaiah refused to take any questions from The News Minute, but a member of the committee who requested anonymity, explained that despite the seeming impossibility of the task, it is possible to draw certain conclusions from “historical and cultural processes”. “Let us give both (parties), the benefit of the doubt,” the scholar said. Stating that unlike the Greek and Roman cultures, of which written records were available, he said the history of the Indian sub-continent requires more creativity to piece together.

Going by the tools – evidence from “cultural processes” and “oral history” – developed by historians such as D D Kosambi and R C Sharma, it is possible to draw conclusions from “supportive elements”. Giving an example of how this method would work, the scholar said it is possible to argue that the Pandavas belonged to a fishing community. Bhishma was born to Ganga and Shantanu. But Shantanu, the king of Hastinapura, later married Satyavati, a Matsyagandhi (matsya = fish; gandh = odour, smell). According to the story, she was the daughter of the king of a fishing community. When their sons – Chitrangada and Vichitravirya – died leaving behind wives with no heirs, Bhishma and Satyavathi ask Vyasa, to impregnate the two women through a practice called niyoga. Vyasa was born to Satyavati and Parashara out of wedlock, before Satyavati’s marriage to Shantanu. Dhritharashtra and Pandu were born to Vyasa and the wives of Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Hence, the Pandavas’ ancestry could be traced back to the fishing community from the stories, the scholar says. (Niyoga is the practice of having sex outside of marriage for the purpose of having children. Its existence, although found in literature, has been debated and became the subject of controversy when Tamil author Perumal Murugan referred to it in his novel Mathorubagan or One Part Woman).

Read: 'Author Perumal Murugan has died', hounded by Hindutva groups, author puts up poignant post Going back to sources to gather historical material, the scholar says that there is enough evidence to show how certain communities, such as the Helavas, were the chroniclers of certain kinds of local histories. They would pass on their knowledge – orally – from generation to generation.

The scholar said that there are, to this day, communities across the sub-continent which preserve oral traditions, including the performance of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata through songs, dance and theatre along with music. He said that these communities were highly regarded once as they were the record keepers – oral records, since oral speech preceded the written word. It was also these communities, which preserved and kept alive the Ramayana and Mahabharata traditions orally for a few hundred years until they were written down in around 100 AD. The process of bringing the oral text into the written word itself took around 200-300 years, he said.

This coincided with the writing of Panini’s grammar of Sanskrit, and the subsequent use of Sanskrit as the language of administrative, documentation and religion, giving its speakers a higher status than anyone else. With this conversion, the custodians of oral tradition lost their importance and they took to performing the two epics. These cultural processes were crucial to understanding the place of various communities in the social hierarchy, and would also help identify Valimiki’s caste, he said.

Thus, it was possible to “re-construct” what had happened, as writer, poet and translator A K Ramanujan had done, the scholar said. Asked how he saw this panning out for the task at hand, the scholar said: “I cannot speak for others in the committee, but I personally am not in favour of banning any book.

If there are problems, we should expose the lies, the half-truths, and present facts before the public. As far as I am concerned, this is my intervention through this committee. I don’t know what the others will do,” he said. As for the conclusion, the scholar said: “There is a mix of people (academicians and experts) in the committee. We are not judges. We all have our backgrounds, reading, knowledge… We will explore. Ours is a culture of sankara (adulteration) and mishrana (assimilation).

There is has been constant exchange and appropriation between communities, continuous Aryanization and Dravidization.”

(Image Courtesy: Battle of Lanka, left, Sahibdin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Valmiki, right, Wikimedia Commons

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