There is a tradition of both Hindus and Muslims writing in Persian over a period of roughly three centuries, imagining and retelling the story of Rama. There might be a tendency to see Persian as a foreign language brought to the country for a brief period by Muslim invaders in some distant time in the past, rather than the official language of the northern and parts of the southern regions of the sub-continent for centuries which by the mid seventeenth century became the primary literary language for educated Hindus and Muslims associated with the wide-reaching Mughal administration.
Historical narratives inspired by Hindutwa ideologies have sought to erase from public memory the multiple retellings of the Rama story, privileging the works composed by Valmiki or Tulsidas alone, while portraying the Muslims as alien invaders, intent on destroying and desecrating Hindu icons. In this talk I hope to give you just a taste of the rich tradition in the Indian sub-continent of composing the Ramayana in Persian, a tradition that flourished well into the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but that has been forgotten today.
How many Ramayanas were composed in Persian? It is very difficult to tell, because the evidence we have consists of poorly catalogued, or un-catalogued manuscripts scattered in libraries and private collections throughout the country. From the evidence that remains we can ascertain that Ramayana in Persian was composed over a period of three centuries, from the end of the sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. Generally, Hindus and Muslims composed during the beginning of the period; but towards the middle and the latter part of the century the Ramayanas were mainly composed by the Hindus for whom Persian was the primary written medium functioning much like English in India today. – Kayasthas, Khatris and Brahmins eg: Kashmiri Pundits featured prominently among the Hindus who worked in Mughal administration and some families belonging to these communities still have in their possession copies of the Ramayana in Persian. The former curator of Persian and Arabic manuscripts at the Natural Museum in Delhi once estimated that the number of Ramayanas composed in Persian was thirty eight. “The Rama story did not seem to have much of an impact or a readership in pre-modern Iran, although in the present day there is a fascination in Iran with anything in India.”
Approach to the texts is as follows. While the basic structure of the Rama story in many of these Persian works resembles that of the Valmiki Ramayana, “I would be a bit wary of viewing them as merely derivatives of the Valmiki text.” Many of these works engage more directly with vernacular, Hindavi versions of the Rama story, either through texts or transmitted orally rather than with Valmiki’s Sanskrit epic. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were Persian works that explicitly drew on other Ramayana versions, such as the Adhyatma Ramayana or the Ramacharitmanas of Tulsidas. “Rather than view the Valmiki Ramayana as the standard by which the accuracy of the Persian Ramayana can be measured, I prefer the approach that is open to the possibility of multiple imaginings and retellings of the Rama story in various languages without privileging the original text.”
The lecture is divided in four parts each focusing on a separate paradigm of engaging with the Rama story and with the figure of Rama.
Representation of Rama as a heroic king combining both human and divine attributes, mostly famously depicted in the illustrated Persian Ramayana commissioned by Akbar during the last quarter of the sixteenth century.
Portrayal of Rama as a seeking prince, who eventually achieves spiritual realization without abandoning the world as depicted in the various Persian translations of the Laghu Yoga Vasishta including those commissioned for Prince Salim, son of Akbar, later Emperor Jahangir, as well as for Prince Dara Sikoh, son of Shah Jahan.
Depiction of Rama as an ideal lover, in poetic renderings of the story of Rama and Sita.
The phenomenon of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries renditions of the Rama story composed by Hindus for their own devotional purposes.
Akbar, the grandson of Babur, the central Asian ruler who overthrew the Lodis in 1526 and son of Humayun who spent ten years of his brief reign in exile from the Indian sub-continent, after losing his throne to the Afghan Chieftain Sher Shah Suri, commissioned the first documented translation of Ramayana into Persian. He commissioned the Ramayana translation in 1585 and it was completed around the year 1589 shortly after a translation had also been prepared of the Mahabharata called the Razm Nama or the “Book of Wars”. This translation process did not involve a rendering of a written text from one language into another, but rather was the outcome of a dialogue, probably conducted in Hindavi, between Persian literary scholars and the Sanskrit pundits who assisted them. The translations spoke to various facets of his imperial mission, namely to reduce sectarian tensions between Hindus and Muslims to reinforce Persian as an official language of the empire to amplify the cult of personality that he constructed around himself.
The Rama story translation served the personal glorification aim well, for through its paintings as well as the very fact that was a story about the ideal king for all times it emphasized the identification of Rama with Akbar. By the 16th century it had become quite common to deploy the Ramayana for political purposes and some regional rulers had produced versions which targeted the Mughals or the previous Muslim rulers as Asuras. Translating the Ramayana into Persian was a way of reconfiguring the emperor’s authority to include both Indic as well as Persianate traditions.
Abd al Quadir Badayuni, one of the official writers at Akbar’s court was associated with the translation. There is an account of the text’s composition, not found in the official histories of Akbar’s reign. His discomfort with preparing the translation is revealed in the following passage:
“In the month of the year nine hundred and ninety seven(997), I finished the translation of the Ramayana, which has taken me four years. I wrote it all in complete and brought it to the Emperor. When I wrote at the end of it the couplet
“We have written a story, who will bring it to the emperor?
We have burnt our soul, who will bring it to the beloved?”
It was much admired. He commanded me to write a preface to it after the manner of the authors. But, it was no such great recovery from my falling out of favour, and a kutbah would have to be written without praising the God and the Prophet, I dissimulated. And from that black book, which is nothing like the book of my life, I flee to God for refuge. The transcription of Kufr (infidelity) is not kufr and I repeat the declaration of faith in opposition to heresy, why should I fear (which God forbid!) that a book which was all written against the grain, and in accordance with a strict command, shall bring with it a curse.” Badayuni in short was reluctant to translate Ramayana.
But, thee were others like Fayzil and Abu’l Fazl to whom Ramayana functioned more like histories and books of advice to kings than religious text. Moreover Mughal authors did not hesitate to include praise of God and Prophet in their renditions of Indic religious works. Nevertheless Badayuni’s comments do highlight a certain anxiety about appropriating indic literary traditions into Persianate sphere.
Akbar text – where it is now:
Jaipur Manuscript problems.
Hamida Banu Ms. Dispersed, in quatar (Akbar’s mother)
A R Khan-I Khanana in Freer, show images. Translation.
Razm Nama – sub imperial copies
Other regional copies “Folk Mughal”
The Mughal emperors were not the only rulers in India to commission copies of the Ramayana. One prominent example of a Ramayana manuscript produced for a regional court is that commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh at Udaipur, between 1649 and 1653. Mewar, a Rajput state that had long remained independent was brought under Mughal control in 1613 by Emperor Jahangir. For the Rana to produce a magnificent illustrated copy of the Ramayana, was in a sense to behave like a sovereign ruler. But, the artist who painted most of the illustrations in the text was a Muslim, Sahib Din.
The figure of Rama appears not only the in the imperial Mughal Ramayana, but also in the Mughal translations of the Vedantic text, the Yoga Vasistha. Tradition attributes this work to Valmiki, the author of Ramayana, while modern scholars estimate its composition as being between the ninth and twelfth centuries. An abridged or Laghu form of the Yoga Vasistha made by the Kashmiri Abhinanda Pashita formed the basis for Mughal translations. This text plays a central role in the elaboration of Mughal conceptions of imperial authority, as well as the development of a Sufi-tinged Persian idiom for conveying indic religious and philosophical notions. In this work Rama, the semi divine prince, later king, of Valmiki’s epic, is portrayed as a troubled youth, experiencing vairagya (dispassionment) with regard to the world, and therefore in search of answers to core philosophical and theological questions. The Yoga Vasistha doctrine of salvation as presented here in the form of dialogues between Rama, cast as a disciple and his Guru Vasishta. Vasishta expands philosophical concepts that are key to the tradition of Advaita Vedanta,, through the medium of interlocking continuum of stories. Gradually Rama moves from his state of discontent to levels of deeper understanding, until finally he experiences liberation. The drawing theme is Jeevanmukthi the idea that one can be spiritually liberated from attachment while carrying out worldly duties. External communication of the world is thereby rendered unnecessary making the vision of spiritual self realization particularly relevant to rulers, for whom kinship constrains the quest of liberation from the world. Nitam Panipeti, a scholar along with the assistance of two pundits, one of whom was Jagannath Mishra, a Sanskrit litterateur did this translation. Emperor Jahangir(Prince Salim) at the time requested for this translation. This particular indic text is given the status of an Islam mystical work explaining esoteric truths. The earliest extant manuscript of Yoga Vasishta dated 1602 is lavishly illustrated by 41 miniatures f which there are several illustrations of a prince or deity seeking the assistance of an ascetic paralleling the discussions between Rama and Vasistha. These paintings also build on the theme of Emperor Alexander (idealized Alexander of Persian poetry) meeting a hermit.
Jahangir’s grandson, the prince Dara Shikoh also commissioned a translation of the Yoga Vasishta. At the beginning of the work Dara’s stamp on the text is marked through the narration of a dream in which he sees Rama and Vasishta. The dream as the legitimization of an author’s project, is a fully established motif through Islamic literature. In the dream, at Vasishta’s insistence Rama feeds Dara, much like a Sufi pir and disciple or murid. Rama’s act of embracing Dara and feeding sweets in akin to anointing him to carry out his task. “Dara’s Yoga Vasistha thus taps into the previously established notion of Rama as an exemple for Mughal rulers in order to address his own concerns about combining ruler-ship with spiritual realization. This is very different from Akbar’s translation as here Rama takes on the position of a disciple rather than a semi-divine king and legitimizes the prince’s spiritual pursuits.
The texture of the Rama story is influenced by the literary conventions of the Persian Masnavi, or narrative verse romance, while the choice of an indic story as the theme, plays a role in the development of the Masnavi form in the Indo-Persian literary context. Example: A Persian adaptation of the Rama story in the form of a Masnavi composed by Masih Panipati during the reign of Emperor Jahangir (1605 –1627).
“The poet’s main object in writing the Masnavi is not to open up a dialogue between Muslims and Hindus, but to rather weave an allegorical romance set against a richly developed topography of an idealized Hindustan. Although Masih adheres to the basic narrative structure of Valmiki’s epic he molds the story into the form a Persian romance between tow lovers. “Masnavi – yi Ram va Sita” not “Masnavi – yi Ramayana”. The romance is tinged with a mystical-allegorical dimension, thus Rama’s tribulations while in search of Sita often mirror those of the tormented soul seeking unity with the divine. “Masih’s Masnavi frames itself as recounting a particularly indic story as well as the ways in which it evokes an imaginary poetic realm of Hindustan within the literary conventions of the Persian Masnavi.
The social and literary background of Masih’s narrative is as follows. Most of the poets writing in Persian during Jahangir’s time were immigrants from Sarafid Iran. They made little of no reference to their new environment in their poetry which was replete with stock Persian metaphors and similies as though they had never left Iran. But, Masih frames his approach to the Rama story with sections devoted to the praise of Hindustan, as though to justify his unusual choice of an indic theme. In doing so he reflects as well as contributes to the evolving literary conventions of the Indo-Persian Masnavi. Masih, after the model of earlier poets writing in Persian praises “sukhan” or verbal discourse, saying that sukhan is integrated to recognizing God and the Prophet and serves as the differentiating factor between man and animals. However, here in the introductory presentation of the Masnavi, Masih skillfully twists his reflections on sukhan into an assertion that India has been especially favored with sweet speech.
“Speech like inner meanings (ma’ani) has
reached its pinnacle in Hind
For the parrot and sugar arise in Hind”
Masih is not the first poet to grant a special status for Persian in India. Amir Khusraw devotes a special section to the praise of Hindustan in his Masnavi Nun Siphir (The nine spheres) claiming that the Persian in India is superior to that of Khuraran, and Sanskrit is at the pinnacle of linguistic perfection, outclassed only by Arabic.
“The land of Hindustan is the abode of love
for, there, is the spiritual path (mazhab) of
infidelity and religion (kufr o din)
Love, the predominant theme in Persian poetic expression exists in its sublime form. He even praises “Sati”.
By rewriting this epic tale as princely a love story Masih evokes a substratum of spiritual signification; for in a Sufi context, stories of earthly love can be made to work as allegories of mystical love. He refers to Rama as “body” and Sita as the “soul”.
The Masnavi –yi Ram does not stray far from the outlines of the Rama story as Valmiki narrates it although the story’s texture is transformed when retold with similies and metaphors of Persian poetry.
Description of Rama’s birth:
“When the light of Rama’s moon became manifest
the crescent of the Eid moon came into the sky”
Here Masih displays his poetic powers with a play on words “Rama’s Moon” in the verse resonates with “Ramachandra” or “Moon Rama”, the Sanskrit epithet. He then pairs this image with the moon of Eid.
Other Persianizing details: Rama addressed Sage Viswamitra as second “Khizr”, the prophet who in Islamic tradition is associated with the discovery of the Water of Life.
After Rama kills Ravana and defeats his army, the celestial beings come down to congratulate (mubarakbadi) him. The figure that appears in other versions of the Rama story as gods, are here represented as “Ruhanian” (Spiritual beings).
“Rama is cast as a lover, rather than an epic hero, a vulnerable, sometimes pathetic figure, his tribulations ending only when at the end, he breathes his last. Masih portrays Ravana also as a lover. Ravana also succumbs to love. He incorporates elements of the Indian poetics of Rasa, infusing the Masnavi with lengthy descriptions of Hindustan’s flora, fauna, rivers and the seasons. In Masih’s tale of mystical love, Rama is the embodiment of human frailty. The triumphs and trials that mark the story are but various stages in the path of love. “A pre-modern telling of the Rama story as a love story, a rendering set against the backdrop of Utopian Hindustan.”