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3 reasons why Hinduism is purging itself of texts promoting casteism—and why I welcome it

Gita Press changed the translation of a casteist controversial verse from the Ramcharitmanas with no explanation.

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The Catholic Church did it with a public apology. After insisting for more than 350 years that Galileo was wrong about the earth’s movement, the Vatican in 1992accepted that the geocentric model of the universe was not correct. Pope John Paul II said Galileo was “imprudently opposed”.

Faith and dogma taking a back seat in a changing world and expanding ontological boundaries are not unique to Christianity. Hindus are doing something similar, though in a subtle manner.

Hinduism is purging itself of texts that explicitly support casteism. I was amazed to find out that the meaning and interpretation of one of the most controversial couplets in the immensely popular Ramcharitmanas — authored by Tulsidas in the 16th century — has now changed.

The original couplet goes like this: ढोल गवाँर सूद्र पसु नारी। सकल ताड़ना के अधिकारी।(ḍhōla gavāomra sūdra pasu nārī. sakala tāḍanā kē adhikārī).

While travelling in Jharkhand, I stumbled upon the 1953 edition of the Ramcharitmanas, published by Gita Press in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. The translation of the couplet goes like this: “A drum, an illiterate, a Shudra, a beast and a woman — all deserve punishment”, using the Hindi word ‘dand’ to translate Tulsidas’ usage of ‘taadna’.

But in the 2022 edition, the publisher has changed ‘dand (punishment) to ‘shiksha’ (instructions). “A drum, an illiterate, a Shudra, a beast and a woman — all deserve instructions.” Interestingly, the book still carries the name of the original translator, Hanuman Prasad Poddar, who died in 1971.

Gita Press, which was founded in 1923, is the major publisher of all Hindu religious texts. It has published more than 300 million copies of the Bhagavad GitaRamayanaBhagvata PuranaDurga SaptashatiPuranas, Upanishads, and other books in different Indian languages.

While Ramcharitmanas has been reproduced by other publishers as well, the one by Gita Press, which has printed nearly five million copies, has acquired an authenticity. Gita Press must be aware that their latest edition would be similarly regarded by the mainstream readers of the text.

I welcome this change in Ramcharitmanas.

But the moot question is — Why did Gita Press change the meaning of the religious text, and without any explanation? Also, how important is this ‘rectification’?

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Three reasons

The change in translated text should be seen in context. And three reasons help explain the publisher’s silent act.

One, Ramcharitmanas was written almost half a millennium ago. Some ideas, which were accepted at that time, may seem outrageous and absurd now. With time, Indian society and its values and ideologies have undergone tectonic shifts. Purging religious texts might be a prudent act on part of the Gita Press.

Two, Ramcharitmanas was written in colloquial Awadhi language, primarily spoken in the Awadh region in modern-day central Uttar Pradesh. A translation of Ramcharitmanas’ Awadhi text becomes necessary to make it accessible to modern Hindi readers and speakers. That is why we have different interpretations. ‘Tāḍanā’ in Awadhi has two meanings — to see and to punish. The word has to be situated in a particular context to draw its meaning. And we can see that the context has changed over the years.

Three, it’s important to understand the literary expectations of readers of a religious text within a particular milieu. At some point, Ramcharitmanas may have been expected to explain, endorse and perpetuate caste hierarchy and supremacy. Some social groups may still harbour such expectations and believe that there is nothing wrong in punishing the Shudras and the women. But they won’t express such views explicitly because the society has undergone a change and there are new literary expectations from Ramcharitmanas— to be an all-encompassing religious text that doesn’t seem out of sync in the existing time.

After India gained Independence and the Constitution came into effect, many archaic ideas enshrined in religious texts became irrelevant and embarrassing. Untouchability has its roots in religious texts but today,even a devout Hindu claiming to be a ‘Sanatani’, won’t publicly admit to practising untouchability even though they do practise it privately.

As publishers cannot go back in history and rewrite ancient texts, they can only tweak the meaning and interpretations by using a hermeneutic methodology. This is exactly what Gita Press attempted to do in the case of Ramcharitmanas. Punishing Shudras and women and comparing them them with drums and beasts may have been acceptable at some point but they aren’t in 21st-century India.

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Not the first time

This change in Ramcharitmanas’ stated meaning by Gita Press isn’t a first for Hindu religious texts. Former President S. Radhakrishnan’s English translation of the Bhagavad Gita, published in 1948, introduced similar tweaks. His translation of verse 41 from chapter 18 — “Of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, as also the Sudras, O Arjuna, the activities are distinguished in accordance with the qualities born of their own nature” — carried an explanation that seemed to taper down the overtly casteist nature of the written text.

“The fourfold order is not peculiar to Hindu society. It is of universal application. The classification depends on types of human nature. Each of the four classes has certain well defined characteristics though they are not to be regarded as exclusive. They are not always determined by heredity. The Gita cannot be used to support the existing social order with its rigidity and confusion,” Radhakrishnan argues.

As a devout Hindu with traditional upbringing, Radhakrishnan couldn’t possibly have denounced the Bhagavad Gita for perpetuating the caste system. He was no B.R Ambedkar. And so, with all his limitations, he tried to rationalise the shlokafor readers of the 20th-century independent India and also defend it at the same time.

Feminist author and theoretician Dorothy E. Smith has argued in her research paperTelling the Truth after Postmodernism: “[The] capacity to tell the truth is never contained in the text but arises in the map-reader’s (metaphor) dialogic of finding and recognizing in the world what the text, itself a product of such inquiry, tells her she might look for.”  She further argues that “people make meaning together and ‘truth-telling’ occurs when what is known emerges out of divergent perspectives coordinated in the social act of referring.”

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Sustaining the criticism

In the case of the updated translation of Ramcharitmanas by the Gita Press, we must take into consideration that Shudras and women are now empowered and the question ‘can the subaltern speak’ has become almost irrelevant in postcolonial, post-Silent Revolution India. It must be underlined, though, that Indian feminism still has a problem of predominantly upper-caste leadership. That is why even texts against women never faced backlash from this section. Perhaps for upper-caste feminists, it is more important to preserve caste privilege — and for that they have bartered their own emancipation to some extent at least.

But this is not the case with the Shudras and other oppressed caste groups. They critique all such religious texts that humiliatethem. This tradition goes back to medieval poet-saints such as Kabir and Ravidas, and modern reformers and social revolutionaries such as Jyotirao Phule, Periyar, and Ambedkar. All of them wrote extensively against the supremacist idea of caste hierarchy and subjugation in religious texts. And the criticism continues today. Bihar education minister Chandra Shekhar and Samajwadi Party leader Swami Prasad Maurya recently challenged some of the verses of Ramcharitmanas, calling them casteist and archaic that “spread hatred in society”.

Incidentally, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Arya Samaj never celebrated the ManusmritiRamcharitmanas, or any other texts that could potentially create fissures in the Hindu fold. Gita Press changing the interpretation of one such verse from Ramcharitmanas is significant in this context.

Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.

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