Epic saga retold
Reviewed by
Kuldip Dhiman

Shree Ramayana Mahanveshanam (Vol I & II)
By M. Veerappa Moily.
Pages 802+674. Rs 1,500.

THE story of Rama has been retold again and again in various ages and through languages as diverse as Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and others. Maharishi Valmiki’s Ramayana is not necessarily the first one because the story existed in folklore and in Buddhist and Jain traditions much earlier. In Jain literature, Lakshmana is the hero of the epic and not Rama. All versions are unique because they are not mere translations of the Sanskrit original, but they reflect the cultural and socio-political concerns of their era.

Shree Ramayana Mahanveshanam (the great quest) is a translation of Moily’s Kannada original by C. N. Ramachandran, Padma Sharma, P, C. Naganna, Laxminarayana Bhat, and Vijay Sheshadri. The structure of the book is classical, and it emulates the ancient epics. It is written entirely in verse and comprises 225 cantos.

The magnum opus alludes to several contemporary issues as it is written for "the people of the new epoch and new sensibility." The import of the following verse, for instance, is quite clear, and it speaks volumes of Moily’s maturity as a writer and thinker, and you wouldn’t expect it to be in this book:

The fire of communal hatred, the lava of odious vengeance/Brought down three domes. The culture of the epochs,/ Treta, Dwapara and Kali yuga, the endless chants of/The great cultural conquest — what did all these yield?

In the Introduction, chief editor C. N. Ramachandran says while in Valmiki’s Ramayana, Lakshmana is a shadow of his brother; modern versions like Maithilisharma Gupta’s Saketh treat Lakshmana as the hero. The same is true of the present work, he says.

This does not seem to be the case. Although Lakshmana plays a more prominent role in Moily’s version, he still does not appear to be the protagonist because if you take him out of the story, the plot suffers a little, but it does not collapse, but if you take Rama out it does. Among the other prominent characters, Ravana gets a more sympathetic portrayal, and Sita is not a passive shadow of her husband.

The plot of the Ramayana is too well known, so we shall dwell on its treatment by the writer. It is ultimately the story of the victory of dharma (righteousness) over adharma (unrighteousness). "Despite being the ruler of a huge kingdom," writes Moily, "Ravana couldn’t rule over his inner world. As opposed to him, in the beginning, Rama couldn’t become the king of even a small province like Ayodhya; but he was able to rule over his inner self. Unravelling the different phases of dharma, voluntarily retreating into the forest in order to obey the words of his father, subduing the demons in order to protect the sages, killing Vali and Ravana — all these constitute the triumph of dharma."

Being a politician, deep down in Moly’s mind, there must be some desire to establish an ideal society, a Ramrajya — a Utopia. "Step cautiously on my dream unfolded before you. If, one day, my dream becomes the dream of our country and the goal of our national consciousness, I will feel truly blessed."

But the author is realistic. For thousands of years, the Ramayana story is part of the Hindu ethos, but it does not seem to have made any difference to the national character.

Has the world learnt any lesson?/The ideal of ‘Ramarajya’ has remained a dream./Has there been peace? Has man found happiness?/The game of life goes on, unceasing, on this earth.

Whatever the case might be, writers like Moily have to keep removing the dust that accumulates on society, fully knowing that this dusting has to be done again and again in every age. Moily talent is immense and the panel of translators have done a great job. There is rhythm, flow, and musical cadence in the translation. The publishers too deserve to be congratulated for making this contemporary masterpiece available to a wider readership.