“Though sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a ring is almost never just a ring.”
Doniger’s great contribution to comparative mythology studies has been the elaboration of the Mobius strip nature of myth, where themes keep unravelling and doubling back on themselves, or interlock on semblances like a Venn diagram whose intersecting rings have no central ring. In The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (1998) she set forth the proposition, continued the investigation with Splitting the Difference (1999) to reveal how myth-making can be used to overcome barriers of gender and culture. In The Bedtrick (2000) she examined the patterns we have created to deal with sexual fantasies. The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was: Myths of Self-imitation (2005) dealt with multiple identities and love in Indo-European myths.
When we think of the ring, four names immediately spring to mind: Kalidasa, Wagner, Bro wning and Tolkien. Rings are embedded in Doniger’s psyche beginning with the gimmel ring her father gave her mother inscribed, “REF to SHU”. Baffling! It referred to her favourite volume of the eleventh edition of the 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica a signal edition which my grandfather also had. Then there is Doniger’s own wedding ring which she retained even after divorce. No wonder she returns to explore its symbolism at length a decade after completing her mythic quartet with The Woman who pretended to be Herself (2006). Her new book explores a symbol she had touched upon in The Bedtrick. Tolkien’s psyche-corrupting ring does not feature in the line-up while the rings of Kalidasa and Wagner receive detailed treatment.
In ten chapters Doniger brings to light different functions rings perform in myth, literature and, her particular speciality, cinema. To her, “rings are signifiers, semiotic objects.” She traces rings through time functioning as recognition clues. There are marriage (and adultery) rings, rings fished from the sea (Shakespeare), Rama’s ring, Shakuntala’s ring, rings of forgetfulness in medieval romances, the Siegfried Saga, clever wives who trick alienated husbands into getting them pregnant, the vexed issue of the rape of the clever wife (one of whom almost rapes her husband). After this the concept of the ring is enlarged to cover jewellery (the circular hollow variety) beginning with Marie Antoinette’s notorious necklace. The ninth chapter ventures into jewellery in English literature and the last investigates if diamonds are, indeed, a woman’s best friend. She shows how marriage, jewellery and faking both “are joined at the hip,” sprinkling the entire investigation with personal anecdotes that lend an engrossing intimate touch to the writing and with puns that enliven the reading. What she leaves out is rings that are just magical (e.g. Aladdin’s) or have secret recesses to hide passwords, microfilms or poison (as with Catherine de Medici).
Rings are a critical proof of identity, functioning often like today’s credit cards. Romans used it as a sign of love, using iron rings for betrothal. By the 13th century the Church was using the ring as a token of marriage. The Hebrew Bible has the ring as a person’s legal surrogate: “The signet ring is an extension of the hand, with its handwriting and, later, fingerprints.” Regarded as an extension of the heart, it is worn on the fourth finger supposedly linked to the heart by the vein of love as far back as the fifth century CE.
Diderot’s ring of truth, in his novel The Indiscreet Jewels, understands vagina monologues, keeping tally “of visitors and their orgasms,” but is silent regarding the woman’s feelings. Doniger seeks to give voice to this. She selects two contrasting types of rings: those which secure marriage before consummation (the Doris Day scenario) versus the indiscriminate pursuit of jewellery through coition (the Marilyn Monroe gold-digger paradigm). The slut assumption underlies both, i.e. jewellery must have been obtained through sex. In one case it validates the wife’s chastity, in the other the courtesan’s conquests. The problem occurs when a clever wife enters the courtesan’s arena to get a ring from her alienated husband to prove her chastity: “Jewellery and beauty play a game of doubles.” Men give beautiful women jewellery. Women crave jewellery to enhance their beauty so that men give them more, especially a wedding ring, “which magically transforms the Marilyn Monroe type into the Doris Day type.”
One of the recurring motifs is the recovery of a ring thrown into the water that often turns up inside a fish, as with Solomon’s and Shakuntala’s rings, which both loose thoughtlessly. Both need the ring to prove their identities. Solomon working as a cook in the kitchen of a king’s daughter after a demon has tricked him and changed his appearance resembles Nala tricked by a snake into losing his identity and cooking in Damayanti’s kitchen. At times it is a child who takes the place of the ring swallowed by the fish. It is not only Pradyumna who is found inside a fish as Doniger writes, but also Matsyagandha and her twin brother. Such tales incorporate the motif of a husband or wife disguised in animal skin. We find this in the tale of “Buddhu-Bhutum,” the Owl Prince and the Monkey Prince, found in Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar’s marvellous collection of Bengali grandmother’s tales, “Thakurmar Jhuli”.
Another motif is what Freud called the Family Romance where a mother abandons her child fearing scandal. The child is reared elsewhere but returns to claim his right. Doniger cites Oedipus as the prime example, but there is an example in Indian myth too. Mandodari, finding herself pregnant in Ravana’s absence after drinking the blood of sages he had stored, abandons her daughter in water. The child, Sita, is reared by Janaka and returns to cause the destruction of Lanka. In Jain, Egyptian and Jewish stories the ring serves to reveal incest involving siblings and parents. In Kalidasa’s Shakuntala story and its Buddhist variant (in the Katthaharijataka) the ring ensures that the king supports his son whom he has refused to acknowledge earlier. Doniger points out that Kalidasa combines three types of rings: the ring of identity taken from the Jatakas; the ring lost and found in a fish; and the ring that restores memory. This technique Doniger calls “bricolage”, whereby the myth-maker takes a piece of one story to add to another. To the ring Kalidasa adds a magical bracelet—another circular piece of jewellery—on Bharata’s arm. He turns the Mahabharata story of power and inheritance into one about desire and memory. The fish symbolises the recovery and persistence of memory. It does not blink and is deep under water. In children we and our memories survive. But very often the rings found in fish “are fishy excuses” that express repression and ambivalence, letting the man fulfil his secret polygamous desires.
In medieval romances (Yvain, Tristan, Arthur, Ogier) the ring has a triple function of identity, memory and invisibility. It can hide you from everyone. If lost, not only do others not recognise you, but you yourself do not either—a fascinating twist to the tale! A flower garland sometimes replaces the ring of forgetfulness. Doniger should have linked Keats’ re-imagining in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” here. Shakespeare uses rings in plots about allegations of adultery.
The multiple functions played by the ring in the myths of Siegfried and of Wieland the smith are analysed at length. The naked sword in the bed between man and woman symbolises the impasse created by the man’s rejection of his wife and the desire for a son. Doniger overlooks the different meaning this has in Indian mythology where it is the “asipatra” vow the king observes during a horse-sacrifice. This enforced celibacy gets over only after the queen’s simulated intercourse with the throttled horse. The sexual symbolism is clear. Wagner rearranged elements from Indian and Norse cosmology, the myth of Brunnhilde the Valkyrie and added the conclusion of having her riding back through the fire to Siegfried. Thus he created a new myth, re-arranging “to re-invent a wheel of cosmic death and transfiguration.” Drawing upon the destructive power of the ring of Polycrates of Samos and Shakuntala’s wedding ring of love, Wagner showed that power and love are at odds with each other. This usually involves loss of memory and identity, providing the man with a convenient excuse for having deceived the woman. To Doniger, the ring acts like the hormone Oxytocin. When she asserts that a virgin having a baby was achieved only in Christian mythology she forgets the many kanyas of Indian myth who precede this by far: Madhavi, Satyavati, Kunti and Draupadi, each retaining virginity despite having sons.
One of the most fascinating chapters explores how clever wives use rings and children to win back their husbands who refuse to impregnate them. This is Stith Thompson’s folk theme “AT 891D”: the rejected wife as lover, exemplified in the Kathasaritsagara tale of Muladeva which passes into the Arabian Nights, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well and the Old Testament tale of Tamar tricking her father-in-law Judah to beget a child. Lot’s daughters get their father drunk to beget children by him. The Merchant of Venice has the same cross-dressing and play with rings. Variants include the plays of Menander and Terence whose plots reverse the clever wife tales and in which the ring identifies the abandoned child as well as its father. In a unique Arabian Nights tale, the abandoned Budur tracks down and stages a homosexual rape of her husband Qamar-al-Zaman with rings playing a key role. Surprisingly, Doniger, the Hollywood aficionado, does not refer to Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge in this context. In a marvellous sentence Doniger provides a vignette of what happens: “This high-wire act, the self flying through the masquerade to catch the out-stretched hands of some other self, must be performed without any net but the narrative chain-mail made up of rings. And that chain-mail is what preserves these illogical stories.”
The historical scandal of Marie Antoinette’s necklace is drawn out at tedious length without dovetailing into the theme of the ring as it identifies no one. In the last chapter Doniger tries to remedy this by arguing that it is about the mis-recognition of the queen. She describes it very evocatively as “a moment (that) came out of myth…and went back into it.” She finds parallels in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, Rossini’s and Mozart’s operas The Barber of Seville in which the necklace is not significant. As she draws extensively upon Alexandre Dumas, it is puzzling why the earlier incident of Queen Anne’s necklace is not covered, since here it was proof of her chastity (typically, although she was adulterous).
In modern times Doniger discusses the slut assumption in literature (Jane Austen, George Eliot, Maupassant, Henry James, Maugham), i.e. a woman sporting costly jewellery has got it by immorality. She spices up her survey with revealing quotes from Mae West and Elizabeth Taylor confirming this. Movies are also analysed (Random Harvest, Vertigo, Gaslight, Gigi, The Earrings of Madame de…) to show how reality and fantasy merge, with the clever lady using it to convince both husband and lover that she is faithful to him alone and that passing off real jewellery in public as fake to put off theft is not a new gimmick clever women use.
The tenth chapter is about how De Beers launched a campaign to sell diamond rings commemorating divorce and apology (to head-off divorce). They even tried the gimmick of “Management Rings” for macho men, which did not catch on because of its innate femininity. The power of the ring lies not only in its emotional symbolism but also in its market value, particularly in case of a broken engagement or a divorce. The Anglican marriage ceremony’s “With all my worldly good I thee endow” used the ring as the symbol of the husband’s property that the wife was to preserve. The opposite is the legend of the diabolical diamond started by the Church. The Puritans in England tried to abolish wedding rings but people wanted them. The British Parliament even had legislation defending a woman’s right to throw the engagement ring into the river instead of returning it to her fiancé! 21st century women have broken free of the De Beers mythology by either selling diamond rings, buying their own (Doniger mentions Miss Universe Sushmita Sen sporting a 22-carat solitaire and challenging a man to match it or the size of her heart), buying other jewellery, going in for costume jewellery, or just not bothering about jewellery. Doniger laments a new trend in the USA of fathers giving daughters silver purity rings for abstinence (as in the Cinderella story). The girls simply take it off when they do not wish to abstain, and then put it back on, “losing it” temporarily as men do in myths. “Sex, if not love, will always find a way—out of…even the promise embodied in a ring.”
One of the themes that binds these stories together is the eternal triangle of jewellery, sex and money. They may be called love stories, but actually they are about “luxury” i.e. lust and opulence. A man broadcasts his command over wealth and sex by having a woman wear jewellery, while women “use jewellery to negotiate between the carat of sexual bargaining power and the stick of financial dependency.” The movie Sex and the City shows that nothing has changed except into something rich and strange. As Doniger writes so perceptively, “Myths endure precisely because people keep changing them into something that serves their present needs.”
If recognition through a ring is a genus, recognising the spouse through it is a species. Since the number of basic plots usable is limited, it enables the audience to experience delightful anticipation, knowing that it is watching something predictable. That is the secret of the success of movies ringing changes on the same series of plots. Willing suspension of disbelief is integral to it, as in the case of the Pandavas not being recognised despite their flimsy disguises in the kingdom of Virata. The myth-maker is like a rag-and-bones man making new stories out of scraps of old tales like a bricolage, what in Bengal is called a “kantha”, a patchwork quilt. Each culture chooses from among these scraps, of which the ring story has proved to be more popular. Story tellers and audiences collude in preserving myths. “It is the repetition that produces the immortality,” tales keep on returning, like rings thrown into the waters.
But why do myths work? Doniger proposes that they persist because they work at a very deep level, repairing the immoral universe, mitigating uneven relations between rich, lusty men and poor, weak women. Thus, they provide hope that the world can become more moral, meeting our personal emotional needs despite being irrationally romantic. An engrossing read indeed. But why such an inappropriate cover showing a woman holding a fruit when the book is not about woman as Eve? There is a Ravi Varma painting of Dushyant giving Shakuntala the ring that could have been used, as also a modern one showing the ring inside the fish flanked by the two.
As I wrote this, I was powerfully reminded of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
Yet, the river we step into is never the same:
we may not change, but we do learn
even while meeting apparently the same self again and again.
Andre Couture: Krishna in the Harivamsha, vol. 2—the greatest of all sovereigns and masters, DK Printworld, New Delhi.
In 1858 at the age of 18 when Kaliprasanna Singha embarked upon his massive project of translating the Mahabharata (MB) into Bengali, he omitted the Harivansha (HV) finding it patently later in language and style. MB refers to it as khila, appendix. Andre Couture, professor of Indology at the Universite Laval, Quebec, is the only scholar to have studied this neglected text in great detail showing that in order to appreciate the dimensions of Krishna’s character one has to read the HV. Like the sub-tales in the MB, the HV serves to complement the mahakavya.
Western Indologists have argued that the figure of Krishna conflates two separate persons: the child-god, a pastoral deity, and the warrior-hero. In Couture’s first volume he had shown how the childhood tales elaborate the nature of Krishna’s divinity. He is protector of the gopas, creator of a new world and destroyer of demons. Restoring stolen earrings to Aditi, mother of the devas, he also harries Swarga to snatch its Parijata tree. The present work takes this further to argue that instead of being a haphazard anthology of ancient tales of diverse origins the HV is a dextrous weaving of material to portray the universal sovereignty of Krishna. Looking at him merely as a hero fails to explain major elements in his life.
What is most satisfying is that Couture does not restrict himself to the Critical Edition—which leaves out huge swathes of material—but studies the vulgate’s rich repository. Comparing the later accounts of Krishna’s childhood in the Puranas he makes the very important point that the shortest version does not necessarily connote the oldest. Further, thematic content and literary structure remain the only means for studying the received text as its authorship cannot be pinned down. The HV is not an ancient relic. It was a living composition responding to questions from new listeners familiar with ritual practices. The episode about the destruction of the kapittha tree (rejected by the CE), for instance, explains the link between Krishna and Shiva. For Couture, “the various HV versions hide lingering questions…the traditional text adjusts to ever-changing environments while still speaking the same, unchanging mythic language.” These changes reveal what is underlying. Another good example is the fight with Bana. Instead of exemplifying how bards corrupted the text (as the CE editors hold), it shows how pauranikas reworked it to keep the audience interested and explain it to them. He finds that a passage (*1259 after HV 108.98) about Narada meeting Aniruddha and Usha has not been included in the CE although it occurs in all the key recensions. Another such passage (*435 after HV 28.12) is about the origin of the Syamantaka gem His research leads to the conclusion that “the logic underlying the reconstruction of the HV is not always evident. (p.145)”
Beginning with Krishna and Balarama’s initiation at Sandipani’s ashram, Couture shows that it marks stepping into adulthood leading to Krishna’s victory in Dvaraka. In the process he acts as a son in many ways: rescues his parents; resurrects Devaki’s six sons; restores the throne to Ugrasena; restores to his guru his lost son; restores to a Brahmin his four dead sons. Arjuna undergoes similar initiatory rites of passage vis-à-vis Drona and Shiva in the MB. MB and HV follow the same plan.
The paper on Dvaraka shows how it is built following procedures for constructing a temple. That indicates the later date of the HV because the MB does not know temples. Couture holds that HV took shape between 200 and 1200 or 1300 AD. Dvaravati is built as objectifying Vasudeva’s divine self. As Krishna-Balarama are the complementary sheshin and shesha, so is Dvaraka complemented by the sea which retreats to house it. Further, between the two brothers in the city stands their sister Ekanamsha, Krishna’s maya. Their combination in the court that replicates heavenly Sudharma shows that this is a city embodying dharma. Its destruction is wrought by ascetics representing nivritti, withdrawal from creation.
Couture draws a fascinating parallel between Madhuvana and Kushasthali. Shatrughna destroys the former and builds Mathura there. Yakshas and rakshasas destroy the latter and Krishna builds Dvaraka there. Before that, Krishna has abandoned Vraja, causing wolves to appear so that the gopas flee to Vrindavana, which is also abandoned after the brothers shift to Mathura. The Yadavas abandon these settlements as the avatara takes birth and dies. Couture proposes that the HV has moved beyond the earlier contrasting of the town with the forest to a new philosophy conscious of the ambiguities inherent in building a city. While it must be built following prescribed rituals, it must be destroyed like any ritual construction.
Couture is the only scholar to study in depth Krishna’s enthronement by kings in Kundinapura (rejected in the CE) to show how it replicates his childhood installation as Upendra/Govinda in the Govardhana episode. This new tale stresses Krishna’s status as universal sovereign. Unlike Shiva he is no renunciant but deals with riches all the time. All the foes he destroys are hoarders. Whatever wealth he recovers he does not hoard but redistributes among devotees. His use of wealth follows the tradition of yagyas in which the monarch distributed the tribute he received among the public. In Dvaraka he says, “I do not wish to see any more hungry, thin, dirty, poor people asking for alms in this city” (86. 60). His speech in the Govardhana episode is similar to that in the Gita in urging all to perform their svadhrma and surrender to the Supreme Purusha in self-sacrifice. The HV’s originality lies in modelling Krishna along the lines of Narayana the Yagya-Purusha to whom worldly goods must be surrendered so that he may redistribute them.
A very important contribution is the development of the theme of goddess Yoganidra-Ekanamsa (“one and indivisible”). She is Ekanamsa because by herself she protects Krishna after birth. Five papers explore the critical role she plays in ensuring the success of Krishna-Balarama’s exploits. Most interestingly, Couture shows that in HV (96) she stands between the two exactly as they are depicted in iconography today. They are avatars of Narayana, Nidra the cosmic night and Shesha-naga. She is sister to both Krishna and Indra, “mahendra-vishnu-bhagini”. She is given the name Kaushiki as Indra takes her as his sister (he is of the Kushika gotra). She is also called Katyayani, consort of Narayana who is worshipped in the Vindhyas and elsewhere with offerings of meat. Thus, when the HV was composed there were many places where the goddess was worshipped (c. 1st to 3rd centuries AD?). Couture equates her with Devi Kotavi who suddenly appears nude during Krishna’s attack on Bana to ensure his “svadharma” in honouring Shiva’s boon to the asura. The HV posits that Krishna as the Purushottama is one with Rudra. She is also related to “jrimbha” (yawn) which appears when demonic forces have to be destroyed, closely linked to fever (“jvara”). Pradyumna and his father Krishna exhibit similarities in childhood, with the devi playing a role in both. As Maya, she helps Pradyumna kill Shambara and as Kotavi she saves Aniruddha’s father-in-law Bana. In a valuable contribution Couture shows that the Pancharatra tetrad is foreshadowed in the HV. Aniruddha alone is not an avatar. He stands for the ego (“ahankara”) sunk in worldly life from which Krishna (kshetrajna, the knower-of-the-self), Balarama (the atman) and Pradyumna-Sanatkumara (“manas”) liberate him.
There is a peculiar cross-cousin marital custom prevalent among the Yadavas that Couture overlooks. Pradyumna marries his maternal uncle Rukmin’s daughter Subhangi. Their son Aniruddha marries Rukin’s granddaughter Rukmavati. In the MB Arjuna marries Subhadra, daughter of his maternal uncle Vasudeva. In Telegu folklore their son Abhimanyu marries his maternal uncle Balarama’s daughter Shashirekha or Vatsala.
Couture provides us with a detailed analysis of Sankarshana’s relations with Krishna—how they come together and move apart. Balarama is not a name given in the MB and the HV, which call him “halin/langalin” (plough-wielder), Sankarshana and Baladeva. Balarama’s plough is linked both to sacrificial rites and to the destruction of cleaving the earth. It is in Jain texts that he is called “Rama”. The MB refers to Sankarshana as the first born of all beings who at dissolution withdraws all into himself. Krishna is the spiritual principle “purusha” while he is the material principle, “pradhana”. The adult relationship of Balarama and Krishna is a vexed one although they complement each other. The episode of the Syamantak gem marks a break in trust, with Balarama moving away to Mithila presuming that Krishna is concealing his appropriation of the gem. Such separation always heralds some violence analogous to cosmic dissolution (pralaya). Couture makes a puzzling reference to Sankarshana being an avatar of the snake who consumes the earth during pralaya, as no such phenomenon is described. Their relationship is seen to evolve from the HV through the Vishnu and Bhagavata Puranas to the Brahmavaivarta Purana where Sankarshana fades out and Radha predominates.
Couture misses an important point the HV makes. Krishna’s conflict with his own clan is not limited to the Mausala Parva of the MB. He refers to having killed Ekalavya, who is a son of his paternal uncle Devashrava. He also kills his paternal aunt’s son Shishupala. Jara, who kills Krishna, is also a cousin of his. Thus, the fratricide that is the Kurukshetra holocaust is paralleled in Krishna’s life. The Syamantaka gem is at the centre of this conflict.
Challenging the editor of the Critical Edition who sets little store by the peculiar story of the Syamantaka gem, Couture shows that every element of it constitutes a carefully constructed narrative depicting the supreme sovereignty of Krishna. Indeed, he is the Yagya-Purusha, the lord of sacrifice (Agni and Soma), of the sun and the moon and through them of the two major royal lineages. It is as the Yagya-Purusha that he overcomes the three Vedic fires who confront him in the battle with Bana, an incident that makes no sense otherwise. Besides the MB, Yaska’s Nirukta refers to Syamantaka, showing its antiquity. Its appearance coincides with the founding of Dvaraka and it has a solar as well as an oceanic (i.e. lunar) origin. Krishna’s possession of it indicates his mastery of both these yagyic principles. Indeed, Janamejaya states that Vishnu contains both. Couture has not noticed that the Krishna-Jambavan duel inside a cave with Balarama posted outside is a clear parallel of the Vali-Mayavi duel with Sugriva standing guard in the Ramayana.
The concept of bhakti in the MB and the HV receives detailed attention. It denotes a two-way traffic. It is not just that the devotee depends upon the deity, but there is a reciprocity involved, an interdependence. The deity, too, has a duty towards his bhakta.
The concluding paper analyses the concept of avatar, finding that the devas’ descent upon earth is analogous to appearing on stage (ranga-avatarana), like the Greek deus-ex-machina. Earth is the arena (ranga) for Vishnu’s performance (lila, krida), in which he assumes many disguises (pradurbhava, kritrima rupa). Significantly, Krishna kills Kansa in an arena and both brothers are said to appear on the stage like the Ashvins descending from Swarga. Couture in an inspired observation links this to Krishna being named “Ranganatha,” lord of the stage.
There are a few misprints, a major one occurs on page 243 where instead of Jarasandha the text has “Janardana”. On page 393 Ugrashravas Sauti is called a Brahmin whereas he is a suta. While putting the papers together, Couture could have edited out the repetitions relating to Yoganidra-Ekanamsa. There is a very useful bibliography and an index. The front cover has a lovely Vishnu sculpture and the back has a bas relief of Krishna teaching Arjuna both from Tamil Nadu. Other than the minor lapses, this well-bound volume is essential reading for any Indologist interested in the HV, providing many new and valuable insights.
This was first published in The Sunday Statesman’s 8th Day Literary Supplement of 15th April 2018.
In Anand Math, just before the remarkable passage in chapter 10 about ‘Mother as she was, Mother as she has become and Mother as she will be’, the protagonist Mohendra is astonished with the song ‘Bande Mataram’ and asks the sanyasi Bhavananda “What Mother?…That is the country, it is not the Mother”. Bhavananda replies that the only mother theSantans know is the motherland because, he quotes in Sanskrit, janani janmabhumishca svargadapi gariyasi‘mother and motherland are greater by far than even heaven. Here is the passage translated by Sri Aurobindo in chapter 10:
‘Bhavananda replied, “We recognize no other Mother. Mother and Motherland is more than heaven itself.”‘
I was intrigued by the half-shloka because I could not find it in any Sanskrit work readily to hand. And so began my search. My first port of call was the Bharatiya Sanskriti Kosh compiled painstakingly by Shri Liladhar Sharma ‘Parvatiya’ of Lucknow. Not finding it here, I wrote to him. The octogenarian freedom fighter responded that he, too, had no idea about its origins but had heard from people that Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya might be its author! What an anachronism!
Next I turned to the internet and the search engines threw up the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan website where a message by Swami Ranganathananda for the Rama Navami number of Bhavan’s Journal was reproduced. Here the venerable Swami exhorts: ‘We in India today need to be inspired by this important utterance of Sri Rama:Janani janmabhumisca svargadapi gariyasi – ‘Mother and Motherland are far superior to heaven’.*
Eagerly I e-mailed the Journal asking for chapter and verse from the Ramayanabecause I was unable to locate it in my edition of the epic. The reply I received was very interesting. They said that troubling the venerable Swami was out of the question and they were short-handed for scholars to hunt through the epic, but they would try. Nothing came of their efforts.
So I turned to a disciple of the Ramakrishna Mission, requesting that the Swamiji’s secretary be approached. The feedback was even curiouser. They virtually disowned what the Journal had published, because the material had never been cross-checked with them before publication!
Wondering what to do, I asked two scientists’a Tamilian mathematician, Professor Bhanu Murthy and a Malayalee nuclear physicist Dr. A. Harindranath’who were deeply immersed in Indian scriptures. Both of them were very familiar with the entire shloka and quoted it trippingly off the tongue. Apparently, in South India this is well known to Sanskrit school-teachers, all of whom say it is from the Ramayana and spoken by Rama in response to Vibhishana’s request that he should rule golden Lanka instead of returning to Ayodhya. I scoured the Adhyatma Ramayana, the Yoga Vashishtha Ramayana and enquired of the translator of the online Ananda Ramayana, all with no success.
Recalling that on an earlier occasion, having drawn a blank regarding the Pancha kanya shloka, I had requested the Indology Listserver on the internet for help (this is a website where Indologists post queries for eliciting information from the community of Indological scholars), I turned to it. I received a response from Professor Jan E.M. Houben of Holland who wrote, “I have the strong impression that jananii janmabhuumis ca svargaad api gariiyasii was a quotation, but it seemed to me part of the novel…Note that also the idea of Indian nationalism which was instrumental for the liberation of India was newly emerging in Bankimchand’s time. Both the idea and the expression are new, that’s why you don’t find an earlier source. For Shankara at least jananii was not so sacred: punar api jananam, punar api jananiija.thare ;sayanam, iha sa.msaare bahudustaare k.rpayaa’paare paahi muraare! An article on the emergence of Indian nationalism and Bankimchand’s role in it appeared in a book I edited (Ideology and Status of Sanskrit, Leiden: Brill, 1996), it was by V.A. van Bijlert. Jananii janmabhuumi;s ca svargaad api gariiyasii, is of course half (2×8 syllables) of a shloka; even then the formulation and the idea expressed seem to be new and suiting to the specific context of Bankimchand.”
But, if this be so, how was it so well known in the deep South and invariably attributed to Rama? Also, if Bankim had not composed it but had used something that was current in the public memory, why did it not occur anywhere in the Gaudiya recension of the Valmiki Ramayana?
Hearing that the famous Vamadeva (David Frawley) was in India, I tried to get in touch with him through N.S. Rajaram who told me that the epics were not Frawley’s forte. He added that he had memories of hearing this shloka in a Hanuman Natakamperformance. I checked Camille Bulcke’s monumental Ramkatha: Utapatti aur Vikasfor this, and found no reference to the shloka in the entries on Hanuman Natakamor, for that matter, elsewhere.
In the meantime I met Professor Julius Lipner of Cambridge University, who was completing a new translation of Ananda Math but had never seen Sri Aurobindo and Barindra Ghosh’s translation of the novel in the early decades of the 20th century. I provided him with a copy and arranged for his visit to Lalgola in Murshidabad district to see the image of Durga-Kali that had inspired Bankim’s vision of the mother-as-she-has-become. I put the problem to him, but he had not a clue. On his return to England he took the trouble of getting in touch with several scholars including Prof. J.L. Brockington of Edinburgh University who has studied the epic verse-by-verse (cf. my review of his Epic Threads). Professor Lipner writes, ‘They all say that this verse is not in any edition of the Ramayana known to them! Folklore.’ But, he added, had I noticed that the half-shloka was engraved on one of the entrances to the Dakshineshwar Kali temple? Now, that was something none of us, who visit the temple so often, have noticed. Rani Rasmoni, the fiercely independent zamindar, had completed this temple in 1855, several years before Ananda Math was written. Shri Kushal Chowdhury, trustee of the temple, informed me that Bankimchandra was known to have visited the Rani and would certainly have come to see this marvellous navaratna temple dedicated to Mother Kali. The question he could not answer is: was it the Rani who had this half-shloka engraved? Whose idea was it and from where were the words taken?
I now turned to Professor Sushil Mittal, editor of the International Journal of Hindu Studies and co-author of the encyclopaedic Hindu World project. He circulated my query to some prominent scholars. Here is the reply he received from Robert Goldman, editor of the English translation of the critical text of the Ramayana: ‘As I have seen the verse, it is apparent that it is from a version of the Ramayana story. Rama, it appears, utters the verse to Lakshmana at some point, probably in theYuddhakanda. The full verse runs:
Api svarnamayi lanka na me lakshmana rocate/
Janani janmabhumish casvargad api gariyasi//
I do not care for Lanka, Lakshmana, even though it be made of gold.
One’s mother and one’s native land are worth more even than heaven.’
Professor Goldman added, ‘but I am not really sure, off the top of my head, what the exact textual source is’I would suggest checking other Sanskrit versions such as theAnanda Ramayana, Kshemendra’s Ramayanamanjari, Campuramayana etc.’ As already stated, it is not to be found in the Ananda Ramayana. I do not have access to the others, but Bulcke’s study does not mention the shloka occurring in any version of the epic. Professor Jayant Bapat informed Dr. Mittal that he located the identical shloka ‘in a Marathi book called Marathi Bhashechi Sanskrit Leni (Sanskrit ornaments in the Marathi language).’ He adds, ‘The author does not specify where he got it from and says that the source is unknown.’
My argument is that as neither of our epics show evidence of any concept of a motherland, this attribution of the saying to Rama is anachronistic and apocryphal. Is it then a folk-memory of an anonymously composed masterpiece of a shloka born of patriotic fervour’something like the elusive Pancha kanya shloka?
I – GHENA MRIDANGA
1. Pekepara is a small village forming part of Baganchara Anchal in Shantipur Police Station of Nadia District in West Bengal. Ghrina—better known as ‘Ghena’—Mridanga was a resident of this village from his childhood. He had been working as a servant and day-labourer in the household and fields of Sagar Santra, a well-to-do farmer of Pekepara. The Santras had come to look upon him as part and parcel of their household and had even got him married.
2. Though working as a day-labourer, Ghena had dreams of standing on his own feet some day. Since 1969 he had been cultivating 0.7 acres in plot numbers 976 and 977 in Mouza Baganchara, Jurisdiction List 12, on behalf of Sagar Santra, handing over to him the entire produce. These lands originally belonged to the Maharaja of Krishnagar. During the last Settlement Operations Sagar Santra had managed to get himself recorded as a ‘jabar-dakhalkar’ (forcible occupier) of the plots since 1950.
3. When the Revisional Settlement Operations were announced, Sagar’s son Bhiku released that as these lands had since vested in the State he would have to manipulate matters in order to maintain his illegal possession of the plots. Bhiku’s initial plan was to enter into a ‘benami’ transaction by setting Ghena up as a landless agricultural labourer cultivating Government lands on his own. This would lead to the plots being settled with him formally, as Government policy was to hand over ownership rights to landless cultivators of vested lands. Thus while Ghena remained the formal owner and patta (land deed)-holder, the Santras would continue as the real beneficiaries with Ghena working as their day labourer and household servant.
4. Unfortunately for Bhiku Santra, Ghena Mridnga had matured and was beginning to use his mother-wit. Ghena had heard that the actual possessor of vested land would be eligible for getting right and title over it. He also got wind of Bhiku’s plan. Suddenly one morning he left the Santras, set up his own little hut and started living as a separate entity in order to uphold his individual claim, and not as a ‘front’ for the Santra vested interests. Finding his initial plan gone up in smoke, Bhiku quickly shifted to clever propaganda. He had it put he had it put about assiduously that these vested plots had been purchased by his father from the zamindar, the Nadia Raj Estate, decades back and that he was, therefore, the legal owner. When this news reached Ghena’s ears, he saw all his fond hopes dissipate and quietly handed back the plots to the Santras. Sagar Santra promptly obtained an agricultural loan from the BDO and in 1973 sank a shallow tubewell on plot No. 977—a tubewell which did not function for a single day but served as convenient proof of Santra’s occupation of vested land.
5. Only one thing was lacking to complete Santra’s triumph: legal right and title to the lands, which could be obtained only by having the Government allot the plots in his favour. On the other hand, Ghena had not given up although he was now nothing but a landless agricultural labourer thrown out by his erstwhile employer. With the advice of some local villagers, Ghena applied to the Junior Land Reforms Officer (JLRO) of Shantipur Land Reforms Circle for allotment of these two vested plots. The Circle Inspector (Land Reforms) of this circle was sent by the JLRO on inspection to the area. He prepared a ‘math-khasra’ (record of field-possession) showing that Ghrina Mridanga, Bhiku and Krishnapada Santra (Sagar’s nephew) were in possession of both plots 976 and 977 since 1951 but that at present, i.e. in 1973, Bhiku alone was in possession of both plots. On the basis of this report, the Block Level Land Reforms Advisory Committee in its meeting held on 23-6-73 recommended settlement of the land as follows:
Plot 976 area 0.51 to Ghena Mridanga s/o Khedu. Own Land: nil
Plot 977 area 0.18 to -do-
-do- area 0.70 to Bhiku Santra s/o Sagar. Own land: 1.00
-do- area 0.70 to Krishnapada Santra s/o Nakul. Own land: 0.99
6. This recommendation was duly approved by the SDO Ranaghat in Settlement Case No. 11-XII/SP/73-74 of Mouza Baganchara, J.L. No. 12. However, the pattas (title-deeds) were not distributed till 1975 and it was only on 10-2-75 that the local Tehsildar (a commission agent for collecting land revenue who keeps the local land records) handed over the pattas to the two Santras after physical possession had been formally made over to them by the Circle Amin on 7-2-75. Curiously enough, the Amin (Group D staff who measures the land) had signed the possession certificate on 6-2-75 but this was over-written to 7-2-75 and signed by the JLRO without giving any date. No patta was handed over to Ghrina Mridanga. During the subsequent enquiry, the JLRO claimed that these pattas had been distributed to the Santras without his knowledge. He failed to explain how, in that case, he had signed the possession certificate. In the Register of Patta Distribution the column pertaining to the date of distribution was blank. According to the Amin, Ghrina’s patta could not be handed over because Bhiku Santra would not allow him to do so. He claimed that he had informed the JLRO of this verbally.
7. After the state government had issued instructions for undertaking a crash programme for distributing all pending pattas, it was on 29-4-76—more than a year later—that the Circle Amin and the Assistant Revenue Officer of the Land Reforms Circle went to deliver Ghrina’s patta. Once again Bhiku objected and successfully confused the ARO (whose function is purely to recover government loans and who has nothing to do with land records) by producing a copy of the Record of Rights wherein Sagar Santra’s name appeared as forcible occupier of the lands retained by the Zamindar. The ARO quickly left the spot after perfunctorily issuing Santra a notice under Section 49(A) of the West Bengal Land Reforms Act, asking him to vacate possession of the vested lands not allotted to him. He also ‘allowed’ Santra and Ghena three days time to settle the matter amicably.
8. However, on 2-5-76 Ghena took the law into his own hands and tried, ineffectually, to gain possession of the lands allotted to him three years back. Sagar Santra immediately sent off a complaint to the Land Revenue Minister who asked the Additional District Magistrate (Land Reforms) [ADM(LR)], Nadia to report. Santra claimed, in his complaint, that the plots had been vested in the State wrongly and that they rightfully belonged to him and were being cultivated by him and his forefathers for generations without break. He alleged that Ghena had ruined the vegetable crop he had grown on these plots with the help of a band of dangerous criminals, and that he apprehended danger to his life and property from this ‘terrible marauder’ Ghena.
9. On enquiry it was found that after the notice had been issued to Bhiku Santra by the ARO asking him to vacate the lands allotted to Ghena, no action was taken to lodge a complaint with a judicial magistrate, as provided in the WBLR Act, when Bhiku did not take any steps to comply with the order. Ghena, in turn, applied to the SDO Ranaghat—an IAS officer on his first posting—on 12-6-76 complaining that he had approached the JLRO for being given possession of the lands, and had been rebuked for attempting to take possession without having a patta. On subsequent occasions Ghena had been told by the JLRO that he had better approach the Block Development Officer and the ADM (LR) for getting patta since he had ‘dared’ to send petitions to them. He was also told that a case had been instituted against him in the Ranaghat Court and until this was decided, no patta could be given to him. The SDO Ranaghat passed on Ghena’s petition to the JLRO on 25-6-76 for ‘taking necessary action’. The JLRO noted on the petition on 1-7-76, “The patta cannot be handed over to the allottee at the present stage of the situation growing in the locality” and did not send any intimation to the SDO, who did not pursue the matter.
10. On 22-6-76 copy of a notice to the Collector, Nadia, under Section 80 of the Civil Procedure Code was received by the JLRO from one Gyanadabala Dasi, wife of late Rajendra Manna, stating that Sagar Santra was her caretaker appointed for 0.51 acres in plot 976 and 1.58 acres in plot 977, i.e. precisely the portions allotted to Ghrina and the Santras, and that it was she who had taken settlement of these lands from the Nadia Raj Estate. The notice warned the Collector to desist from distributing the said lands since the Records of Right were wrong and Gyanadabala Dasi intended to file a suit for declaring her title to the lands. The JLRO duly forwarded on 2-7-76 a skeletal statement of facts to the Revenue Munsikhana Section of the Collectorate which deals with civil cases involving government. The section took no action in the matter, as it was only a notice and no suit had yet been field. In the meantime, Bhiku Santra had lodged a number of complaints in the form of General Diary entries in the local Police Station against Ghena, alleging various types of intimidation on his part.
11. At this point the ADM (LR) decided to investigate the case in person. He had, in succession, sent two officers to look in to the case: one was a WBCS probationer who had been a Kanungo in the Settlement Directorate for over a year with field experience to his credit; the other a very senior WBCS officer who was a veteran of the Settlement Directorate. None of these reports could satisfactorily explain the mysterious appearance of Gyanadabala Dasi on the scene and the JLRO’s reluctance to hand over the patta to Ghrina. The SDO, who had then been asked to look into the matter, did not visit the spot but endorsed his JLRO’s report that the danger of breach of peace precluded handing over the patta. The SDO firmly expressed his view that subordinate officers should be backed up instead of being disbelieved.
12. Thereupon the ADM went straight to the village in question, visited the plots in dispute, the house of the Santras, the hut of Ghena and spoke to the villagers. He discovered that Gyanadabala Dasi was the masi (maternal aunt) of Bhiku and was the termagant ruling the Santra household with an iron hand. He found that the JLRO was in the habit of visiting the house of the Santras (a large pukka building) and that on his last visit, after the SDO had passed on Ghrina’s complaint to him for necessary action, he had first gone to see Gyanadabala Dasi, asked her why she had not sown anything on those plots yet. Then he had told Ghena that until the shallow tubewell was lifted from the plot, possession could not be given to him and also that this would have to wait till the case against him in the court was decided. The Santras had promptly sown both the plots with kalai (a type of pulse) in defiance of the notice under Section 49-A of the Land Reforms Act asking them to vacate vested land on penalty of eviction and payment of damages. As for the shallow tubewell, the only sign of its existence the ADM found was the pipe.
13. The ADM also found that both the reports sent by the JLRO on the complaint made by Sagar Santra to the Land Revenue Minister had been drafted by the JLRO himself, which was extremely unusual, and that the fair copies had been made out not by the assistant dealing with such matters but by the Issue Clerk and the Amin. Moreover, the details of the land records supplied in these reports were wrong. The correct RORs (Record of Rights) had been copied from the local Settlement Office later, but were sent to the ADM in original by the JLRO without keeping copies or correcting his own records. The JLRO’s style of functioning was an important clue which led to the ADM’s discovery of a mass of irregularities and serious lacunae in the land distribution carried out by this JLRO.
14. The ADM then took the SDO Ranaghat with him to the spot along with Amins, demarcated the area allotted to Ghena Mridanga and formally handed over both the patta and the land to this allottee in the presence of the villagers and the Santras on 28-9-76. He explained to Ghena that since Bhiku had already sown kalai in the plots, he should be allowed to harvest the produce without interference. The office copy of the patta was handed over to the JLRO who, by then, was at his wit’s and fell all over himself promising to protect the rights of Ghena.
15. On 5-11-76 the ADM was surprised to find Ghena in his office with a complaint of having been driven off his land by the Santras assisted by the Gram-Adhyaksha (village headman) of the village. The SDO Ranaghat was immediately informed. On 9-11-76 the SDO wrote to the Circle Inspector of Police, Shantipur, asking him to ensure peaceful possession of the lands by Ghena and wanting a report by 15-11-76. On 17-11-76 the SDO informed the ADM that the allegation made by Ghena was false, since the CI had reported that he was very much in possession of the land and (extremely significant) “he has harvested kalai on the land”.
II – NANDA DALUI
1. Nanda Dalui owns 3.56 acres of land at Assannagar in the police station of Krishnagar in West Bengal. He supports his mother, wife and 4 minor children. He inherited this land from his father the late Sudhanya Dalui and his uncle the late Surya Dalui. Both his father and uncle had taken a loan of Rs.3,600 jointly from the Nadia District Cooperative Land Development Bank Limited (NDCLDB) for sinking a shallow tubewell. They were also indebted to the tune of Rs.700 to Jitendra Nath Saha, a fertilizer and pesticide licensee who had no money-lending licence. Saha realised the debt in kind at about Rs.10 less than the prevailing market price. The money-lending transactions were entered by him in a hath-chita, a small account book bound in red cloth.
2. In March 1974 Sudhanya Dalui received a notice from the NDCLDB for re-paying Rs.2,100. He approached Jitendra Saha for advancing a further loan to meet the demand of the Bank. This was perhaps the opportunity Jiten Saha was waiting for. He informed Sudhanya Dalui that he would not be able to advance this loan without security since Dalui had not repaid the earlier loan. Sudhanya was compelled to execute a registered sale deed for two bighas of his land for a loan of Rs.1,000, whereas the market value of the land was around Rs.2,000 at that time. Sudhanya was also pressurised into executing a bainanama (sale-agreement) that he would sell his remaining land for Rs.3,000 should he fail to repay Rs.3,622 by Chaitra 1382 B.S. (April 1976) on payment of Rs.500 by Saha. The market value of this portion of land being irrigated with a shallow tubewell was not less than Rs.20,000. Dalui, however, did not hand over possession of any portion of his land to Saha. He went on repaying his loan to Jiten Saha by giving him a share of his produce. It is not possible to assess the fairness of the price determined by Saha for the crop since there was no entry in the hath chita about the quantity of crop received. At one place only, where an entry had been made, it was found that Dalui had given Saha 176 kg of paddy for Rs.220, but in the next page the balance brought forward omitted the amount wholly.
3. Sudhanya Dalui and his brother Surya Dalui both died soon thereafter. Nanda Dalui was faced with a nightmarish situation and had to approach Jiten Saha again to repay the outstanding dues of the Bank. Saha showed Nanda Dalui the bainanama and asked him to hand over two bighas of irrigated land. Nanda Dalui did not agree to the suggestion and was served with a pleader’s notice informing him that the bainanama would be converted into a registered sale deed unless the debt was repaid by Chaitra 1382 B.S.
4. Nanda Dalui submitted a petition to the Additional District Magistrate (Land Reforms), Nadia, on 10 March 1976 stating his problem and praying for succour. The Assistant Magistrate & Collector (a newly recruited Indian Administrative Service probationer) was entrusted with the enquiry into the case. He summoned the parties to the office of the Anchal Pradhan (elected head of the community development block-level panchayat samiti) on 13 March 1976 but the parties were not present at the appointed place. The Anchal Pradhan informed the Assistant Magistrate that the matter had been amicably settled. Sri Harinarayan Mallick, who had sponsored the petition of Nanda Dalui, also denied the facts stated therein. The Assistant Magistrate had, however, noticed Nanda Dalui hovering about in a hesitant manner near the office. On making enquiries about the antecedents of the Anchal Pradhan the Assistant Magistrate found that he had lands and properties in Assannagar, Krishnagar and Calcutta and was an unofficial agent of the local Marketing Cooperative Society for purchasing jute. It was found that local farmers did not get a fair price for their jute and the Anchal Pradhan had appropriated the money as middleman.
5. The Assistant Magistrate asked the Anchal Pradhan to produce the parties immediately as he suspected that the alleged settlement between Nanda Dalui and Jiten Sahu was spurious. Nanda Dalu and his witness confirmed his suspicions. On interrogation Jiten Saha became extremely nervous and made contradictory statements about the loan due to him from Nanda Dalui. He was informed of the moratorium on realisation of rural debts imposed by the West Bengal Rural Indebtedness Relief Act 1975 and was asked to settle the matter with Nanda Dalui forthwith. Saha asked for seven days’ time for the purpose.
6. A week later Nanda Dalui reported to the Assistant Magistrate that Jiten Saha had given him hints that he should sell two bighas of his land and repay his debts with the sale proceeds. Saha also did not turn up before the Assistant Magistrate at the appointed time. The ADM (LR), along with the Additional Superintendent of Police and the Assistant Magistrate, thereupon visited Assannagar on 23 March 1976 but could not find Saha although prior intimation had been sent. The Anchal Pradhan and Jiten Saha’s elder brother Subodh Saha were asked to ensure that both the parties appeared before the ADM on the next day along with the sale deed and the bainanama.
7. On the following day, Jiten and Subodh Saha appeared, but without those documents which, they pleaded, were lying with their lawyer and were not easily available. Nanda Dalui was also present and recounted the entire history. It was pointed out to Saha that he was guilty of evading stamp duty and that action under Section 64 of the Indian Stamp Act could be taken against him, involving a penalty of Rs.5,000. Further, it was found that his fertiliser and pesticide licences had expired and had not been renewed so far. Moreover, he was lending money to many people. On all these facts being pointed out and on being reminded about moratorium on rural indebtedness, the elder brother, Subodh Saha gave a written undertaking that he was taking the responsibility to cancel the bainanama and retransfer the lands to Nanda Dalui by a registered sale deed. He also undertook not to press Nanda for repayment of the debt amounting to Rs.3,622.45 and agreed that it could be repaid by Nanda at his convenience. Accordingly, he was asked to execute the sale deed on the same day and arrangements were made for handing over it to Nanda Dalui. The bainanama was also cancelled the same day.
8. The Nadia Land Development Bank which had, in the meanwhile, taken steps to auction the lands for realization of its loan, was informed of the developments and it agreed to allow time till the next year when it was hoped that Nanda Dalui, freed from the burden of usurious demands, would be able to achieve a certain amount of financial solvency.
9. The local BDO was instructed to allot the wheat minikit and summer paddy seed package to Dalui under the agricultural extension programme for enabling him to start cultivating his land free from the crippling problem of obtaining basic inputs.
10. At the same time the ADM succeeding in persuading the U.B.I. (the Lead Bank) to finance Nanda Dalui. The first step they took was to pay off Dalui’s loan to the Land Development Bank. Then they deputed their field officer for supervising Dalui’s wheat and paddy cultivation on the field along with an agricultural input loan of Rs. 700 for the wheat and Rs. 1,000 for the summer paddy.
Published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies and Social Sciences, a peer-reviewed journal, vol. VIII, No. XI, pp. 95-104.