Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

This workshop was conducted as part of the fourth annual Teaching History conference, The Idea of Culture, in August 2018 in Calcutta.

Kumkum Roy. I think one of the important things to keep in mind is that while this workshop is about textbooks, it is also about issues of peace and reconciliation. Maybe, somewhere, when we are looking at the textbooks, it might be useful to think about that and what is happening with those. While it may have seemed that some of us are complacent about the textbooks, I don’t think that is the case at all. Most of us are aware of how rapidly things are changing around us. And the fact that we will need multipronged responses to it. This is not something that can come on an institutional basis at the moment, but it is something we all need to think about and engage with in different ways. Perhaps there is no single formulaic response that we can offer—we need to think about different ways, different strategies of response.

One pragmatic suggestion for teachers, as a teacher, is that: there is always some space in our schools where we don’t work within an exam framework. So, when you don’t have a board exam, you can experiment and open up things for your students in different ways. That is one quick suggestion. We need to keep in mind that many of the books we have been discussing—the NCERT books, for example, are translated into several regional languages apart from being translated into Hindi. And it is also useful to keep in mind that many schools in many states across the country use these books, either modified or in different ways, even if we don’t have access to them.

One more point I wanted to make is that we are working in a situation where there is a digital divide. So while digital media may sound accessible to many of us, they remain inaccessible especially in the government-school scenario where the majority of the most under-privileged learners study. In those spaces, digital access is not something that is easy. You will find that even in a very privileged space like JNU, something which we took for granted for a number of years, subscription to JSTOR has now been discontinued. This is just to give you an idea of where we are located in terms of digital access. So let us not minimize the importance of other modes of communication—I think, for example, that face-to-face communication remains extremely important. And as teachers we are privileged to be able to participate in face-to-face interactions with learners. To make the most of that opportunity in different ways—that is important for us.

The Ramayana is something I presume everybody is more or less familiar with—I have shared one excerpt with all of you. The other is from the Rohantamiga Jataka.That is perhaps more important and more interesting to talk about. In the case of Valmiki’s Ramayana, we are focusing on the Aranya Kanda. We are starting from when Shurpanakha sees Rama up to where Sita is abducted by Ravana. The Ramayana we will come to later. What did you make of the reading of the Rohantamiga Jataka? Any response from the audience?

. . . the rope cut through his skin, flesh and his bone. Realizing his plight the Bodhisatta let outa cry so that the other deer would know that he was trapped. Hearing this, the other deer were scared, and, breaking into three groups, fled as fast as they could. Not seeing the Bodhisatta amongst them, Chitta thought:“My elder brother must be in distress.” Rushing back, he saw that the Bodhisatta was indeed trapped. The Bodhisatta warned him: “Brother, do not stay here. Danger lurks.” He added:

[A conversation between the two brothers]

Deer, run for your lives Brother Chitta, you should also leave at once. Look after the others as I used to do. You are now their only refuge.

Rohanta, I will not go, I am here bound by love. I will not abandon you even if I die.

Our parents are blind, they need you Return to them, or they will die.

Rohanta, I will not go, I am here bound by love. If you are in distress, how can I go? I will not abandon you even if I die. Chitta remained standing to his right, reassuring him. Sutana, too, not being able to find her brothers, thought that both of them were in distress, and went back to the lake.

[Another conversation]

Run away, o frightened one, I am trapped. What will you gain by waiting here? Go quickly and look after the other deer Just as I used to do. Why stay here? Rohanta, I will not go, I am here bound by love. I will not abandon you even if I die.

Our parents are blind, they need you Return to them, or they will die. Rohanta, I will not go, I am here bound by love. I will not abandon you even if I die. So she took her position to the left of Rohanta. Seeing the deer flee, and hearing the cry of the Bodhisatta, the hunter thought that the king of the deer had been ensnared. He armed himself to slaughter the deer and arrived at the spot. Seeing him, the Bodhisatta said: Here comes the hunter’s son, armed to the teeth With arrow or sword, he will kill all of us. Seeing the hunter, Chitta remained where he was. Sutana, however, fled. But then she thought, “ Where will I go leaving my brothers behind?” She too returned, and took her position. Scared of the hunter, she fled, but then, she did the impossible. She returned to face certain death along with her brothers. When the hunter saw the three animals together, he was filled with compassion. He figured out that they were siblings. He thought: “The king of the deer is trapped; but these two creatures refuse to flee thinking it would be humiliating. I wonder who they are.” So he asked: Who are these deer to you? They are free, while you are bound Yet they stand by your side. They are not afraid that they may die. The Bodhisatta replied: They are my brother and sister. Risking their lives, they stand by my side. The hunter’s heart melted when he heard the Bodhisatta. Sensing this, Chitta intervened: “Brother Nishada, do not think this king of ours is an ordinary deer. He is the lord of 80,000 deer. He observes the shilas, is compassionate towards all, and is wise. He looks after our blind parents, worn out with age. If you destroy him, you will in effect be destroying five lives—his, ours, and those of our parents. However, if you spare him, you will earn the merit of saving five lives.

Blind and helpless, they will die of grief if they lose their son Free my brother; save the lives of all five. Hearing Chitta, the hunter replied: “Lord, have no fear.” I free him who serves his parents Let them be happy with him once again. Then he started thinking: “What is the use of the royal reward? If I kill this noble deer, either the earth will suck me into the deepest hell or my head will burst, split by a thunderbolt.” Having made up his mind, he went to the great being, removed the stake, tore apart the leather thong, embraced the deer, lifted him and laid him down near the water, then gently removed the noose and carefully joined torn veins, nerves, flesh and skin. He washed away the blood, and massaged him. Soon, the wounds healed and the injured leg looked as good as new, covered with skin and hair. Seeing this, Chitta addressed the hunter: Seeing the great deer liberated, I rejoice O hunter, may you too enjoy such bliss with your near ones. Now the Great One thought, “Did the hunter trap me for himself, or on instructions from someone else?” He questioned the hunter accordingly. The hunter replied. “I had no need to capture you. The chief queen, Khema, wanted to hear you preach the dhamma, that is why I trapped you.” The Bodhisatta said: “If that is so, you have displayed great courage in setting me free. Come, take me to the king. I will teach the queen about dhamma.” The hunter replied: “Lord, kings are very cruel. Who knows what will happen if I take you there? Go wherever you please.” The Great Being realized that the hunter had performed an extremely difficult task in setting him free. So he decided to ensure that he would receive his due reward. He thought for a while and told the hunter: “Brother, stroke my back.” As soon as he did so, his palm was full of golden hair. The hunter asked “Lord, what should I do with this?’ The Bodhisatta replied “Show this to the king and queen and tell them: ‘these are the hairs of the golden deer.’ Then, recite the verses that I teach you for the queen. The moment she hears them, her desires will be quenched.” Saying this, he taught him ten verses on the dhamma and the five shilas, before bidding him goodbye.

Shabana Anwar. I am a teacher-educator at the Modern Academy of Continuing Education. If I were to teach this story to Class 3 or Class 2 or even narrate it to pre-schoolers in nursery, I would focus on how a very violent situation was solved by using sweet words. It is possible to use words to negotiate and to come out of any situation without using violence—I would focus on that.

One day, Khema devi had a dream at dawn. She dreamt that a golden deer was seated on a golden seat, and was instructing her about dhamma. The deer’s voice was as sweet as the tinkling of golden anklets. She was listening to him, spellbound, when suddenly, the deer rose and left. As she woke up, she shouted; “Get hold of the deer.” Her maids laughed when they heard her. They thought: “All the windows and doors are firmly shut; and yet the mistress wants us to catch some deer!” The queen also understood that she had seen a dream. She thought: “If I tell the king that I saw a dream, he will not pay me any attention. However, if I say that this is my craving because of my pregnancy, he will definitely try and fulfill my desire.” Having made up her mind, and being determined to hear the golden deer, she pretended to be in agony, and lay down. The king came and asked her,” Dear, are you ill?” Khema replied: “No, but I have a wish.” “What is it, my dear? “I want to hear words of dhamma from the mouth of a golden deer.” “Dear, why do you wish for the impossible? There is no such thing as a golden deer.” “If my wish is not fulfilled, I will die here and now.” Saying this, she turned her back to the king.

Audience. I found a similarity between the Ramayana story where Sita wants that golden deer. The woman is lusting for something and that is what leads to a kind of conflict. That is what I found common when I was reading both the stories and the symbol of the golden deer. That is what they are running after.

Shukuna Mukherjee. To me they come across as conveying a set of moral values. The most important being the victory of concern for others over greed. It really fascinated me because in today’s world, values like tolerance, patience, concern for others—they are receding into the background where our self-interest is what we really need to fulfil.

O khattiya king, if you serve your parents according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you look after your wife and children according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you look after your friends and ministers according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you engage in yuddha and yatra (wars and tours) according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you look after your subjects (praja) in both town and village according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you take care of the paura-janapada (people in the town and countryside) according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you pay respects to samanas (wandering ascetics) and Brahmins according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you treat lesser creatures according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you serve your parents according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven

Follow dhamma, o lord, this is the source of all happiness.

If you follow dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

May you never swerve from the path of dhamma.

Even the gods such as Indra attained heaven by practicing dhamma.

Kings in the past, who followed this advice, who were dutiful and disciplined, attained heaven.

Athvi. I am a student of literature, so I see it in a very different way. For me, the entire narrative was a little problematic for the simple reason that I found the women characters rather flimsy. ‘I want to run away’, then ‘ I don’t want to run away’! Most importantly, we have Khema who wants to listen to the 10 Dhammas. When you end up listening to the Dhammas, they are very male-centric. Yet, she seems to be pretty happy just listening to that. It has nothing for her and yet it is supposed to satisfy her longing for it—I found that very problematic.

Sneha. I have just completed my BA. My comments are a continuation of Athvi’s. I found the women characters strange too, especially the queen—she wanted to listen to the Dhamma. But when she went to the king, she said she had had a dream and wanted a golden deer. There is a conflict of interest over here. It is not the king who says: these are your rewards—it is the queen who does that. I too found it a very male-centric Dhamma, yet the queen seems so satisfied with it. Somehow I could not relate to that aspect of it. But one thing I really liked is that despite the screaming matches and fistfights, it preaches a very peaceful way of resolving things—things can be done in a better way if we just listen to each other rather than by shouting and screaming.

Roy. I think I should start off with some of the issues you have raised and some of the issues which came to my mind when I set up this comparison. I was looking at these two texts using the schema that A. K. Ramanujan had set up in his essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’. I had mentioned that as part of the reading. (His essay became a bestseller in Delhi once it was thrown out of the syllabus of Delhi University. Also, because we have been talking about politics and history teaching, it is important to remember that this happened during the UPA 2 government.) What Ramanujan was doing in that essay, apart from what attracted controversy, was to try and set up a strategy for comparing different narratives. And he was suggesting that if you have narratives which use more or less similar imagery, ideas, etc., they have an ‘iconic relationship’. That was the first category he used. The second was when he said that they are more or less similar but they are doing different things with the imagery. Then it becomes indexical, and you have a ‘symbolic relationship’.

And the argument I would try to put forward is the relationship between Valmiki’s Ramayana (in Sanskrit) and the Rohantamiga Jataka (which has come down to us in Pali, but could have been told in various languages as indeed the Ramayana might have been too).

As some of you have already pointed out, there is a parallel between Sita and Khema as well as differences. The golden deer figures in both narratives but very differently.The same is true of the forest. You have three possible strategies of reading these two texts together and it is important to see that they are not simply ‘this’ or ‘that’—there can bean overlap amongst the three categories. If we look at these two narratives, we can see that there are conflicts relating tothree or four central and overlapping issues. One, you have different notions of kingship and, for those of us who have been thinking about these texts as male-centric, it is useful to think of different kinds of patriarchies, different forms of patriarchy.Not of patriarchy one monolithic block. And what does that tell us about strategies of survival for men, women, others, etc.? Different ways in which political relations are defined, ways in which they are valorized—what is regarded as significant?

Both the texts talk about varna–jati relationships in different ways. Many historians have read the Rakshasas as people who are outside the varna–jati framework and, therefore, representing an alternative to a varna–jati system. The Nishada (according to the Brahmanical reckoning) would have been at the very bottom of the varna–jati hierarchy and yet, as we can see, in the Rohantamiga Jataka, the Nishada has a central role to play—the Nishada is, in fact, a key figure. Then, of course, you have gender relations. Operating at one level between brothers and sisters—in the Ramayana, Shurpanakha, when she is in trouble,appeals to her brothers; and in the Rohantamiga Jataka, when the Bodhisatta Rohanta is in trouble, although he doesn’t appeal, it is the brother and sister who, in a sense, come to his rescue. So, different relationships between brothers and sisters represented in these narratives. And, of course, the husband–wife relationship—whether it is Rama and Sita, or, by extension, Lakshmana and Sita, or, in the Rohantamiga Jataka, Khema and Brahmadatta who is her husband, the king.

You also have this negotiation taking place between the forest and the settled world. In Valmiki’s Ramayana, we know that Rama represents the settled world. His exile into the forest is viewed as a marker of punishment in some ways, so it is something he has to negotiate, he has to handle in different ways.The Rakshasas are very much the people of the forest, though we have reference to a very splendid city in Lanka. On the other side, in the Rohantamiga Jataka, we can see that the deer are the enlightened beings who reside in the forest, and it is from them that the Nishada (or the hunter) acquires the message that he does—the message of Dhamma—and carries it back to the king’s court. So, the centre of learning, in a sense, is destabilized—it shifts from the urban centre, from the royal court, to the forest and it is from the wisdom of the forest that the court is ultimately saved and re-established. There are all these elements that are important to look at.

Now, the narrative of the Ramayana. I will quickly run through it to refresh our memories of it. We have a description of Shurpanakha’s:

Rama was handsome, the Rakshasa woman was ugly, he was shapely and slim of waist, she, misshapen and pot-bellied; his eyes were large, hers were beady, his hair was jetblack, and hers the color of copper; he always said just the right thing and in a sweet voice, her words were sinister and her voice struck terror; he was young, attractive, and well mannered, she, ill mannered, repellent, an old hag. And yet the god of love, who comes to life in our bodies had taken possession of her, and so she addressed Rama: ‘Your hair is matted in the manner of ascetics, yet you have a wife with you and bear bow and arrows. How is it that you have come into this region, the haunt of raksasas?’

Now, I want to pause for a minute. Rama is supposed to be a Kshatriya, he has a wife yet he is disguised as an ascetic and this act of pretence is something we come across in different ways in the narrative. Maricha is a Rakshasa who adopts asceticism and then transforms into the deer. When Ravana approaches Sita, he too approaches her as a mendicant, as a Brahman. So you have this play of the idea of people pretending to be what they are not. And while Rama is not supposed to be pretending, there is nevertheless an ambivalence about the way in which he is represented. What is also interesting and incidental is that when Shurpanakha describes Sita, she refers to her as ‘asati’. Now, those of us who are familiar with any of the Indian languages know that the term ‘sati’ carries enormous value and weight. So, referring to Sita as ‘asati’ is the height of abuse, as it were. The commentators have speculated on why Shurpanakha is using this term—it is because she finds Sita with two men. Which is the idea that seems to be playing on the mind of the poet. Once again, it gives us an idea about gender relations and the ways in which they were structured.

Now, Rama’s response to Shurpanakha. Shurpanakha is serious about what she says, but Rama’s response is ‘in jest’. He is mocking her, making fun of her. He sends her off to Lakshmana, saying that he is eligible to marry her. Lakshmana responds that he is like a slave, his wife will be a slave as well—again a telling commentary on gender relations. The wife would obviously be the slave of her husband, and, by definition, of any man related to her husband. Ultimately, Rama orders Lakshmana to disfigure Shurpanakha—a standard punishment—and her nose and ears are cut off. You have all this happening in the forest. What Shurpanakha does in response is to go to her brother. Not her brother Ravana but her other brother Khara who lives in the forest. And one of the things she asks for is to drink the blood of these three. We can also note the intertextuality here: in the Mahabharata, Draupadi wants the blood of the men who have humiliated her. There is a parallel, but because this is framed as the desire of a Rakshasi woman, it is not something that is fulfilled. You have a legitimate desire for vengeance and an illegitimate desire for vengeance being classified within the tradition. And then you have a long and gory battle that goes on for 13 sargas/cantos—from sarga 18 to 30. The description of the battle is vivid: it is fought with hammers, spears, pikes and keen battle axes, swords and javelins, discuses, lances and terrible clubs and massive bows, bludgeons, harpoons held high, the 14 dreaded Rakshasas marched out from Janasthana, obedient to the will of Khara, to kill one man.

All of them are destroyed and there is a very bleak description of the death of Khara. All of them lie in blood. His soldiers lie in pools of blood, hair streaming wild, lie on the earth like grass upon a broad altar. And, because the forest is filled with dead Rakshasas, it is made bloody with their blood and torn flesh. In an instant, it becomes a place of utter terror, a vision of hell itself. You can see how graphically the conflict is described in this text. This is a minor conflict as it were;nonetheless, it is something that received considerable attention. Khara goes out to fight but he is described as a deer in front of the lion. Rama is the lion and Khara is the deer. Once again, very vivid imagery. When Khara is killed,Shurpanakha approaches Ravana and reminds him of his duties as a king, and this reminder is somewhat similar to the notion of kingship in the Dharmashastras and the Arthashastra. Ravana is described as the king who, given to pleasures of different kinds, fails to recognize the proper time and place to do things. Nor he doesnot weigh the pros and cons in situations. All these things are held against him. He doesnot send spies into the forest, he doesnot know what is happening there. He is described as worthless as clouds of dust—or even more worthless than clouds of dust—because he obviously is incapable of defending his realm. So, Shurpanakha, in a sense, invites him into trouble and incites him to vengeance. She describes Rama, Lakshmana and Sita and she tellsRavana to take Sita as his wife. So, you have a brother–sister relationship here, but it is a relationship where the sister is inciting the brother into a course of events which will lead to destruction. In that sense, once again, it is different from the narrative that we have in the Rohantamiga Jataka.

Ravana then decides to use Maricha who takes the form of the golden deer. There is a very idyllic, peaceful description of the forest within which Maricha lives, and, although he is a Rakshasa, he is practising asceticism. He tries to dissuade Ravana from the course of action but Ravana says that what he is doing is a command—‘I in particular resemble the gods’. So, he claims to be equal to Agni, Indra, Yama, Varuna—all the Vedic deities. And because he is so powerful, he says that his decision should hold and that Maricha should obey him blindly.

I will just read out the description of the deer from this text:

The deer’s horns were tipped with rare gems, his face mottled dark and light, one part like pink lotuses and the other like blue. His ears were like sapphires or blue lotuses, his neck gently elongated, his belly gleaming sapphire. His flanks were like the pale velvety madhuka flower, the rest golden lotus shoots, and his hooves glowed cat’s-eye beryl. He was slim and slender of leg and brilliantly crowned with the tail tinged with every colour of the rainbow. He was studded with all sorts of precious stones that lent him a glossy and captivating hue. In an instant, the Rakshasa had changed himself into this magnificent deer.

So, if readers are familiar with both the narratives, they will see the parallels in the descriptions of the deer. They will notice that even though the deer in the Rohantamiga Jataka is not described so elaborately, there are echoes of itover here. Now what is interesting, of course, is that Sita is the one who is entrapped rather than the deer—the deer is the one that ensnares her. Rama is initially not deceived but Sita wants the deer at all costs and, unlike Khema, she wants the deer because she wants to show it off when they return to Ayodhya. Even if the deer is killed, she says its goldenhide willmakean excellent seat for them. Rama ultimately concurs, saying that kings do hunt, they hunt for sport as well as for meat, and he too is looking forward to sitting on the hide.

Then we have the pursuit, and finally Rama kills the deer. At that very moment, Maricha adopts Rama’s voice and cries out in distress. Sita wants Lakshmana to be off at once to save Rama. And during the argument they have over that, you have this stereotypical statement about women’s nature: 'This is the nature of women the whole world over: Women care nothing for righteousness, they are flighty, sharp-tongued and divisive.'

For those of you who thought that the figure of Khema is sort of a flimsy woman, we need to look at it in a certain context. You have these general notions about women which are very much part of the prevalent oral, textual tradition. When we compare that to the representation of Khema, we can probably notice certain differences. She may not come across to us as a twenty-first century woman in Kolkata, but she is doing something different from what Sita is doing, and that is an interesting point of comparison that you perhaps need to keep in mind.

Back in the story, Ravana duly arrives. He is in disguise and he asks Sita to abandon the life in the forest and go settle for a life in a palace instead. Sita decides to be hospitable to him partly out of fear because he seems to be a Brahman and a guest, and she is anxious he not curse them. So, you have this anxiety—it is not a hospitality that is extended spontaneously but a cautious kind. What Sita does is to introduce herself to Ravana in terms of her father and her husband—it is interesting to compare that to when Shurpanakha introduces herself in terms of her brothers. Here, there is no mention of brothers, obviously it is a different kind of kinship network. Then, she describes how they came into the forest, describing Rama in glowing terms as somebody who gives and does not receive and therefore superior, who tells the truth and does not lie. At this point, Ravana reveals his true identity. Sita, in spite of that, turns down his overtures and declares her loyalty to Rama. There is a series of comparisons that she makes:Ravana is likea jackal and Rama, a lion. Again, the power hierarchy of the animal imagery is very clear and this is something that all of us relate to fairly easily. Ravana also mentions his lineage,sayshe is the brother of Kubera, the god of wealth, and then he assumes his true form and carries her away. This is a narrative where the king emerges as the martial figure who can be potentially violent, where you have a sharply demarcated gender relationship, and where the king’s dharma seems to lie in the victories he scores over the Rakshasas. If the Rakshasas represent the others—those who are outside the varna–jati hierarchy, then this is a narrative of conflict to the finish. It is a conflict which ends ultimately in the extermination of the Rakshasas.

Coming to the Rohantamiga Jataka. Many of you are probably aware that there are more than 500 Jatakas, and the longer ones tend to be towards the end of the collection. This is one of the longer Jatakas with verses and prose as usual, and one can think of the ways in which this could have been used in a situation of performance, narrative etc., how part of it could have been sung, part of it could have been enacted—there could have been different ways of transmitting the same narrative. Like Maricha, although he is not described as vividly,Rohanta is a golden deer whose parents are dependent on him. It is interesting that whereas Dasharatha and Rama are separated from each other, Rohanta has a close bond with his parents. Then, you have Queen Khema who, in a dream, sees Rohanta sitting and preaching the dhamma. As she wakes up, the deer flees. She wants the deer and asks her maids to catch it. She soon realizes that her maids will not take her seriously and nor will her husband if she says that she dreamt of a golden deer. So what she does instead is to say that it is a craving she is experiencing as a pregnant woman—there is an element of deceit here. What is interesting is that the knowledge of the golden deer is not found in the king’s court—it is the Nishada—the hunter living on the outskirts of the settlement—who has knowledge of it. The hunter’s father, on his death bed, had imparted this knowledge to his son, so his son is the only person who knows where the golden deer is.

It is again interesting that knowledge is no longer confined within the Brahmanical system. It is the real or true knowledge which will make a difference and that lies with the hunter who mediates between the forest and the court, leading to a transformation of the court, as it were. Now, when the Nishada goes into the forest, he discovers the habits of the deer and then sets up a trap near a pond where he knows the deer will come to drink water. The Bodhisatta comes to drink water and realizes that he is trapped; but he pretends to drink water till the whole herd has had their fill of water. Only after that does he let out a cry which alerts the rest of the looming danger. Thus, here we have a different notion of kinship being projected, a more paternalistic, more benevolent notion. Not democratic, yet more open-ended. And very unlike the kind of tense situation we have among Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. We also read the interesting description of how both the brother and sister, Chitta and Sutana, run away with the rest of the herd. But when they realize their brother is not with them, they come back. A different scenario from the Rama–Lakshmana–Sita one,where you have angry exchanges and so on. Here, the siblings come back on their own.

As an aside, I would like to draw your attention to the Dasharatha Jataka where Rama, Lakshmana and Sita are represented as brothers and sister. Again, we find a symbolic parallel. It is supposed to be a supportive relationship. So you do have an alternative vision of kinship here. Both kinship and kingship are defined in somewhat different ways.

Then, you have the transformation of the hunter. The hunter becomes a different person altogether. He realizes there is something unique about these two animals standing guard around the one who is trapped. It is a situation he has not encountered before and, for those of us who have some kind of hope for non-violence and peace, this is an extremely beautiful image. One animal is trapped, two others stand quietly by its side and this leads to a change of heart on the part of the hunter. And because it leads to a change of heart, the hunter decides to release the deer and to heal it. And the description is really graphic—about how he joins bone to bone, skin to skin, muscle to muscle and then the Bodhisatta wants to know why he has come to the forest in the first place and realizes he has a mission. He says he is willing to go with the hunter, but the hunter says that kings are cruel, they are not to be trusted. As proof that they have met, the hunter strokes the back of the deer; his palms are covered with golden hair, with which he then returns to the court. There is an initial interrogation, after which he is duly honoured, and then he preaches the dhamma to Khema and her husband. This dhamma may not seem very new to us, but that may also be because it has very strong parallels with the Ashokan notion of dhamma. It includes respect for parents, wife, children, friends, ministers, engaging in the dhammayuddha and dhamma yatra, the kinds of pilgrimages and tours of dhamma mentioned by Ashokawho advocates looking after the praja or his subjects, looking after both Brahmans and Shramans, and all creatures. It is an alternative vision of kingship and one we conventionally associate with Ashoka—on the basis of the Ashoka inscriptions—and it seems to come alive here.

The king offers various kinds of rewards—coins, ornaments, even wives—so he would have probably ended up with three wives! Whether that would be a good or a bad situation, or a conflictual one, we don’t know. It is also suggested that he should adopt a different mode of livelihood. The livelihoods are described as those which are laid down in the Brahmanical texts for the Vaishyas—agriculture, trade, money-lending. These are what the king recommends but the Nishada refuses. Instead,he says, he willrenounce the world, leaving all the wealth for his wife and children.

Jataka stories have something known as the samodhana—many of you may be familiar with this—where parallels are drawn between characters of the present and characters of the past. Now, not surprisingly, the Buddha is identified as Rohanta—he is the Bodhisatta. That is the first equation. His sister Sutana is identified with Uppalavanna, a very famous bhikkhuni in the Buddhist tradition. His brother Chitta is identified with Ananda—one of his very dear disciples. Khema, we are told is an unnamed bhikkhuni in the present birth, so we donot have a name for her. The king is identified with Sariputta, another famous disciple of the Buddha. The Nishada is identified with Channa, an attendant who accompanies the Buddha-to-be when he leaves the palace on his quest for enlightenment.

Does this text offer us an alternative view of gender relations? I am not saying that these are equitable gender relations, but do they seem to be different from what we have in Valmiki’s Ramayana? Does it also give us a different sense of women’s desires? Shurpanakha has one kind of desire, Sita has another, Khema has yet another. So, you have a range of women’s desires being discussed in these narratives—what do we make of that? Would kingship be automatically militaristic? What is the difference between a militaristic king and a paternalistic king? You have a range of possibilities within the framework of monarchy that is being opened up and explored in different ways. And then, as I mentioned earlier, one of the very fascinating things about the Rohantamiga Jataka is the centrality of the Nishada in imparting knowledge. He is the one who mediates between the forest and the settled lands, and that such a key role is being assigned to the Nishada rather than to a pandit or a scholar is really significant. It allows us for an alternative vision and a way of looking at the relationship. What is also interesting is that, in the Rohantamiga Jataka, the wisdom to govern the kingdom comes from a deer. The deer, apart from the golden deer we have been talking about, is otherwise a fascinating animal because it is one of the herbivores which cannot be domesticated. It has resisted domestication, in a certain sense. Why the deer as a symbol eventually becomes important as a mediating figure is something that we might need to think about, talk about and try to understand.

These narratives, the Ramayana and the Rohantamiga Jataka, were co-circulating, were co-existing. It is important to think what these alternative visions were and how people would have responded to them. It allows for a certain space for thinking, a certain creative way of engaging with a different mode of communication. What I find fascinating about this story is also that it seems to use the imagery of the Ramayana to tell a very different story, and somewhere, I think, there is perhaps a message for us in terms of the strategies of communications that we use. Very often, we tend to use strategies that are reactive—and I am not saying they are not necessary, they very often are—but can we think of other creative ways of responding to situations of conflict that create space for a different kind of engagement?


Question. I want to ask you about this line in the Rohantamiga Jataka where the Nishada is being asked why he would not adopt one of the better professions—agriculture, trade or banking? I thought that is significant in the sense that it shows the rise of the Vaishyas and the possibility of social mobility—that the Nishada can move up the so-called social ladder by adopting a better profession.

Roy. Actually, I think what is interesting is that the Nishada refuses this and then goes on to adopt an independent position. He is refusing what the king has to offer, so he is opting out of the courtly social order that he is, in a sense, helping to set up. And I think that is a very interesting statement, because he is then helping the king, but he does not want to get into any kind of obligation from the king. I think when we talk about social hierarchy, sometimes it is useful to remove ourselves from where we are located and see how our world would look from the outside. From the Nishada’s point of view, agriculture, trading or money lending may not seem to be particularly attractive propositions. We automatically assume that these are what people want. There may be others who have different aspirations. This text allows us for that space to think about people who have alternative aspirations which may not correspond with what we would ‘normally expect’.

Question. When you talk of gender equations in the Ramayana and the Jatakas, the dynamism is always very relative. How do we standardize it? It can be anything? What is your take on that?

Roy. I don’t think we need to standardize. What we need to do is contextualize, and see what wehave in terms of gender relations in these two texts which would have been more or less contemporary in their circulation. Some people would have heard both, some people would have heard only one, but they would have different ideas to think through. What is interesting for me is to imagine their implications if and how they could circulate simultaneously. People would have that mental space to think through these alternative possibilities. Today, we might think of other possibilities as well. In the Ramayana story, as we know, Kaikeyi has this desire for power. That is the starting point of the exile narrative. Then Sita has this desire for the golden deer—that again leads to further complications. So, you can see that the female desire plays a part, apart from Shurpanakha’s. Shurpanakha, I am leaving aside for the moment. Even these women who are located within the framework of the narrative in Ayodhya, you can see that there are ways in which their desires are de-legitimized. They are asking for something that only means trouble. Whereas in the case of Khema, her desire is something that does not lead to trouble. Rather, it results in the enlightenment of the king. So there are different ways in which the notion of female desire is played out in the two narratives.

Bishwajeet. I am a student of literature at Maulana Azad College. In the text, the hunter describes the deer to the king as having a back as white as silver—as you have written in your text. You have also mentioned that the hunter, when he describes the king to Rohanta, says that the king cannot be trusted. In Christian mythology, we see that the colour silver is a symbol of treachery and betrayal. So, the deer has the colour silver. I think it is as if you know he already knows about the nature of the king. So, can there be a bridge between Christian mythology and the Rohantamiga Jataka?

Roy. I am sure there are a lot of interactions taking place. But, remember: in the narrative, when the hunter strokes Rohanta’s back, what he gets on the palm of his hands is golden hair. Maricha is described as a jewelled deer, with all kinds of precious stones all over his body, his tail like a rainbow and so on (of course, these are literary devices). When the deer is described, it also has this combination of gold and silver. What is striking, of course, is the deer that Khema sees in her dream—it is described as golden, and the hair that the hunter carries back as proof that he has actually met the deer is also described as golden. It is quite likely that there is some amount of interaction that could have led to an exchange of imagery between different traditions.

Question. I was wondering why, when we talk about Sita’s desire, we think of her as an oppressed person. Is there something in the metaphor of the jackal and the lion that she is using that refers to what she likes, what kind of desire she expects her man to fulfil? Also, are there any versions of the Ramayana where Sita is asking Rama if he had any romantic liaison with anyone when she was away. That is not something that we hear about ever!

Roy. I wouldn’t even venture to comment on the different ‘tellings’, as Ramanujan would have called them, of the Ramayana because there are just so many that I don’t even want to enter into any kind of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ statement about that. But, in this particular section, what is interesting is, both in the Sanskrit and in the Pali/ Prakrit tradition, when the jackal and the lion are introduced, usually the jackal triumphs—as in the Panchatantra narratives—because it is smarter than the lion. But you can also see that there is a hierarchy of power that is represented over there. When the jackal triumphs, it is the weak triumphing over the strong. But when these animals are used as metaphors by Sita, and it is a long section (sarga 45, verses 29 to 43), it is more to suggest that she and Rama are of a higher status than Ravana, and Ravana is just going beyond his position in even dreaming that he can own her or take her, so to speak. In her glorification of Rama, it is more her assertion of her husband’s power than her desire in this case.


All translations of the Ramayana are from Sheldon I. Pollock, The Ramayana of Valmiki: An Epic of Ancient India(New Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 2007). Excerpt 1 is from sarga 16, verses 8–11 (p. 123). Excerpt 2 is from sarga 40, verses 13–16 (p.170). Excerpt 3 is from sarga 43, verse 27 (p.178).

Kumkum Roy teaches ancient Indian History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her publications include The Power of Gender and the Gender of Power. She is interested in issues of gender in particular and social stratification in general, as well as in issues of pedagogy ranging from school to higher education.

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