New Delhi: As Ayodhya gets ready for the ‘bhoomi pujan’ for Ram Mandir on 5 August, ending centuries of wait, the day almost coincides with the birth anniversary of the person who can be called the original catalyst for the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ movement.
It is Hindu saint and poet Goswami Tulsidas’s epochal work, ‘Ramcharitmanas’, which is credited with taking the story of Lord Ram to every household in north and central India, creating an emotional connect between an average Hindu household and Lord Ram.
That ultimately proved to be the key factor in building a movement for the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the birth place of Ram, after over four centuries. The movement gained momentum when the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) took over the mantle to build a nationwide movement.
Before he wrote Ramcharitmanas in the local Hindi dialect called ‘Awadhi’ around 400 years ago, the story of Lord Rama was largely recited in Sanskrit in northern and central India through Valmiki’s Ramayana. But Tulsidas, despite being a Sanskrit scholar, chose Awadhi. He began writing it in Ayodhya and finished it in Kashi (Varanasi).
The birth anniversary of Goswami Tulsidas is on Monday, 27 July, this year, just a week before the construction work for the Ram Temple is set to begin formally.
Philip Lutgendorf, an American Indologist and professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies in the US, says in his seminal work, The Life of a Text Performing the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas, that anyone interested in the religion and culture of Northern India invariably encounters a reference to Ramcharitmanas.
“This sixteenth-century retelling of the legend of Ram by the poet Tulsidas has been hailed not merely as the greatest modern Indian epic, but as something like a living sum of Indian culture,” wrote Lutgendorf, who is considered to be one of the foremost experts on the Ramcharitmanas.
He wrote “the tallest tree in the magic garden of medieval Hindu poesy” was acclaimed by Mahatma Gandhi as “the greatest book of all devotional literature”.
Western observers have christened it “the Bible of Northern India” and called it “the best and most trustworthy guide to the popular living faith of its people”.
The time of Tulsidas
There are different versions about the place and year of birth of Tulsidas, ranging from 1497 to 1532. But there is unanimity that he was born at one of the places that is currently part of Uttar Pradesh during the month of Shravana, according to the Hindu Calendar.
Tulsidas Jayanti is observed on the ‘Saptami’ of the Krishna Paksha, i.e. the seventh day of the dark fortnight of the moon, which is on 27 July this year.
Tulsidas wrote around a dozen texts on Lord Ram’s life — the two most popular being Ramcharitmanas and Hanuman Chalisa (40 verses in praise of Lord Hanuman). The massive following of Lord Hanuman today can be attributed to the latter.
The poet himself founded a large number of Hanuman temples and is known to have set up a large number of ‘akharas’ with Lord Hanuman’s statue being enshrined there. The tradition continues even today as all the Indian ‘akharas’, in north and central India, have a statue of Lord Hanuman.
Some of the unknown feats of Tulsidas include his initiation of Ramleela (theatrical performance of Lord Rama’s story) across the region. The tradition of holding Ramleela for nine days prior to the festival of Vijayadashami (Dussehra) still holds strong not only in India but also in several countries of south-east Asia.
The popular appeal of Ramcharitmanas can be gauged from the fact that when migrant labourers were moved during British rule from India to Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname and many other countries, they carried with them the rich tradition of reciting the poem and performing Ramleela, which has thrived there over the time.
A pioneer of Hindu renaissance
Tulsidas is in fact one of the most understated pioneers of Hindu renaissance in medieval India. “The legend suggests Tulsi’s success at transcending sectarian differences and at synthesizing diverse strands of the Hindu tradition,” Lutgendorf wrote.
Indologist and British Civil Servant F.S. Growse noted in The Ramayana of Tulsidas (1883) the overarching impact of the poet.
“There are Vallabhacharis and Radha-Vallabhis and Maluk Dasis and Pran Nathis, and so on, in interminable succession, but there are no Tulsidasis,” he wrote. “Virtually, however, the whole of Vaishnava Hinduism has fallen under his sway; for the principles that he expounded have permeated every sect and explicitly or implicitly now form the nucleus of the popular faith as it prevails throughout the whole of the Bengal Presidency from Haridwar to Calcutta.”
In the medieval era, when Hindu society was struggling with several divisions and facing an onslaught from Islamic invaders, according to Lutgendorf, Ramcharitmanas played a key role in uniting Hindu society.
“Reconciliation and synthesis are indeed underlying themes of Tulsi’s epic: the reconciliation of Vaishnavism and Shaivism through a henotheistic vision that advocates worshiping Shiva as father of the Universe while making him the archetypal devotee of Ram,” Lutgendorf wrote. “A similar rapprochement is effected between the nirgun and sagun traditions —between worship of a formless God and of a God with attributes.”
“His hero is at once Valmiki’s exemplary prince, the cosmic Vishnu of the Puranas, and the transcendent brahman of the Advaitins,” Lutgendorf added. “What weaves together such ‘inconsistent’ theological strands is the overwhelming devotional mood of the poem, expressing fervent love for the divine through poetry of the most captivating musicality.”
Frank Whaling says in his The Rise of The Religious Significance of Rama (1980) that Tulsidas created “an integral rather than a new symbol” of Lord Rama.
The writer is associated with the RSS. He is research director at a Delhi-based think tank, Vichar Vinimay Kendra, and has authored two books on the RSS.