On The Contributions Of Goswami Tulsidas

Even in contemporary India, the effect of Tulsi Ramayan in uplifting the nation cannot be overestimated.

This essay was contributed by Krishan Saxena, an academician based in the United States. 
 

Goswami Tulsidas composed his magnum opus, Sri Ramacharitamanasa, in Avadhi – a dialect of Hindi. Popularly known as Tulsi Ramayan, it is a version of Ramayana originally composed by Maharishi Valmiki. Valmiki Ramayana predates even Mahabharata which was composed by Maharishi Vyasa. These Maharishis composed Ramayana and Mahabharata in Sanskrit more than 5,000 years ago when, unlike today, Sanskrit was the language of the elites in India (India that is Bharat, according to the constitution of India). As attested by the vast amount of literature written over millennia in Sanskrit since Ramayana and Mahabharata were composed, Sanskrit remained the language of the elites over thousands of years in India and in lands beyond it.

To those of us who are ignorant of Sanskrit and have become inculcated with the notion that “civilization is a modern thing,” it is: Surprise! Surprise! The demise of Sanskrit occurred in the last millennium concomitant with the conquest of India, first by Islamic/Middle-eastern and later by Christian/European forces. In Muslim ruled states in India, Persian became the language of the elites and the native Hindi language peppered with Persian words evolved into the language called “Urdu.”  In its genesis, Urdu is similar to Ebonics – a language evolved among the Black slaves in USA. Urdu and Ebonics are the languages of necessity, a necessity brought upon by the conquest or enslavement and long occupation.  No matter how imperfect the language of the victors may be, it prevails on those they rule and the imprint is long lasting.  Even after almost seven decades since the independence of India in 1947, Sanskrit – a more perfect language than any other – has not attained the status it once enjoyed with the elites in India.

The birth year of Goswami Tulsidas is shrouded in uncertainty. Was it 1497 AD or was it 1532 AD? But what is certain is that he lived a long and ife and a fruitful life and passed away in 1623 AD.  His writings are voluminous but in 1574 A.D. he started composing  Sri Ramacharitamanasa, his magnum opus, in Avadhi. It was a time when the culture of India (i.e. the Sanatan Dharma) had experienced a significant, severe and continuing assault on it from Islamic orthodoxy that began in 712 AD.  And although during his reign the Islamic orthodoxy had been put in check by Akbar (1556 – 1605 AD), great men like Goswami Tulsidas stand apart from ordinary men in foreseeing what commoners can’t and don’t. His writing of  Ramacharitamanasa would have a far reaching effect on the history of India and the survival of Hinduism, i.e. Sanatan Dharma..

Although mainly written in Avadhi, Sri Ramacharitamanasa has no dearth of slokas and prayers in Sanskrit and in several places Goswami Tulsidas goes from Avadhi to Sanskrit and back from Sanskrit to Avadhi, seamlessly. It shows an organic continuity between Hindi and Sanskrit. Undoubtedly, Goswami Tulsidas could have written Sri Ramacharatamanasa in Sanskrit but by composing it in Avadhi he made the knowledge of Hindu scriptures embedded in Ramayana, Vedas, Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads available to the masses when the means of such discemination were being eliminated methodically.

Avadhi is not only the lingua franca of a vast historical area called Avadh, it is a dialect of Hindi and Hindi is understood in a much larger part of north India. Tulsi Ramayan (i.e. Sri Ramacharitamanasa) is indeed widely read in all areas where Hindi is understood. Needless to say that Tulsi Ramayan is read, not because it is written in Avadhi/Hindi, it is read widely because Goswami Tulsidas has put in it the highest of Hindu philosophy and Dharma in a sweet and easily understood idiom – a feat akin to bringing down the laws of thermodynamics to a level where even the monkeys could grasp them.  Although examples abound in each chapter of this book, two will suffice to illustrate the point.

For example, in simple Avadhi/Hindi, in chapter 2, Ayodhya Kand of Sri Ramacharitamanasa, Goswami Tulsidas describes the Being of Rama through the lips of Maharishi Valmiki as: “Rama sarupa tumhara bacana agocara buddhipara, abigata akatha apara neti neti nita nigam kaha” (Translation: Your Being O Rama, is beyond speech, beyond intellect (conception), indescribable and infinite; the Vedas speak of it as “not that, not that.”) And, in Sanskrit, at the very beginning of the same chapter, Goswami Tulsidas presents the essence of Hindu Dharma in a single shloka: “prasannatam ya na gatabhisektastatha na mamle vanavasaduhkhatah, mukhambujasri raghunandanasya me sadastu sa manjulamangalaprada” (translation: May the splendor of Sri Rama’s lotus-like face, which neither grew brighter at the prospect of His being installed on the throne of Ayodhya nor it dimmed by the bad news of the exile in the forest, ever bring me sweet happiness and bliss.”)

manas

A perceptive British observer and scholar in India, Sir G. A. Grierson, wrote the following about Goswami Tulsidas in the Linguistic Survey in India almost a century ago (reproduced in Kalyana-Kalpataru, Vol. 15, of August 1949): “He lived humbly in Benaras, unequalled and alone in his niche in the Temple of Fame. Disciples he had in plenty – today they are in millions, imitators none. Looking back through the vista of centuries we see his noble figure standing in its pure light as the guide and the savior of Hindustan.  His influence has never ceased, nay, it has ever kept increasing … HE FOUNDED NO SECT, LAID DOWN NO DOGMATIC CREED, AND YET HIS GREAT WORK IS AT THE PRESENT DAY THE BIBLE OF NINETY MILLION PEOPLE, AND FORTUNATE IT HAS BEEN FOR THEM THAT THEY HAD THIS GUIDE. .. IN FACT THE IMPORTANCE OF TULSIDAS IN THE HISTORY OF INDIA CANNOT BE OVERRATED.” (Emphasis added.)

Culture may not act like a shield against a foreign invader, but it certainly stiffens the backbone of the people defending it and their home and the hearth. Akbar had kept the Islamic orthodoxy at bay but he did not, or he could not, put it away.  After the death of Akbar in 1605 AD the Islamic orthodoxy came back roaring and during the long reign of Aurangzeb (CE 1658 – 1707), the great-grandson of Akbar, this tyranny grabbed the Hindu society and “Hinduism” in India by a choke hold – as if it was meant to be its “final solution” for Hinduism in India similar to what had been done earlier to Zoroastrianism in Iran and Buddhism in Afghanistan.

The American historian Will Durant in his eleven-volume, The Story of Civilization ( Vol. 1, Our Oriental Heritage) describes Aurangzeb’s rule, then ruling virtually over the entire India in the following words: “… He (Aurangzeb) forbade all public worship of Hindu faiths, and laid upon every unconverted Hindu a heavy capitation tax. As a result of his fanaticism, thousands of the temples which had represented or housed the art of India through a millennium were laid in ruins. WE CAN NEVER KNOW, FROM LOOKING AT INDIA TODAY, WHAT GRANDEUR AND BEAUTY SHE ONCE POSSESSED.” (emphasis added).

Aurangzeb’s tyranny on Hindu masses was not an isolated instance.  It was a part of a long reign of tyranny that began in Sindh (now in Pakistan) with the invasion of Sindh by Muhammad bin Qasim in 712 AD.  To quote Rizwan Salim, a Muslim historian, “The wrecking of Hindu temples went from the early years of the 8th century to well past 1700 AD, a period of almost 1000 years. Every Muslim ruler in Delhi (or Governor of Provinces) spent most of his time warring against Hindu kings in the north and the south, the east and the west, and almost every Muslim Sultan and his army commanders indulged in large-scale destruction of Hindu temples and idols. … They also slaughtered a lot of Hindus.” (cited from  “Hindu Temples – What Happened to Them” by Sita Ram Goel). Historians K. S. Lal and Sita Ram Goel have provided a glimpse of this long reign of tyranny on Hindus and Hinduism in their books “Muslim Slave System in Medieval India” and “Islamic Imperialism in India,” respectively, and Sita Ram Goel has cataloged thousands of temples which were destroyed or converted into mosques in a two volume set “Hindu Temples – What Happened to Them.”  Even this report of monumental destruction is just the tip of the iceberg.

India has been, and continues to be, the land of Rishis and Munis (saints and sages). The ancient culture of India – the Sanatan Dharma (the eternal religion) – based on four pillars of Truth, Purity (internal and external), Compassion and Charity – was created by the sages thousands of years ago. It was not only created, nurtured and spread by them in ancient times, it has also been kept alive and infused with vigor by their disciples (shishyas) throughout the written history of India so that today the Sanatan Dharma (Hinduism) is the oldest surviving major culture on planet earth.  By writing Sri Ramacharitamanasa in Avadhi (Tulsi Ramayan), Goswami Tulsidas – a sage in medieval India – made the highest wisdoms of Hinduism (from Ramayana, Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads) available to vast masses in India making it far more difficult to annihilate. Tulsi Ramayana played a major role in preparing Hindus for struggles ahead.

A few decades later other sages and saints made their contributions to defending and preserving Hinduism.   In the times of tyrannical Aurangzeb, Samarth Guru Ramdas’ disciple Shivaji (CE 1655 – 1680) in Maharashtra (west India) unsheathed his sword, and in Punjab (north India), Guru Gobind Singh (1675 AD -1708 AD) did the same to defend the Sanatan Dharma. It is extremely rare for Gurus to pick up arms, but it is not without precedent.  That a Guru – a spiritual guide, a practitioner and preacher of spirituality who removes ignorance and who considers all life to be sacred, was compelled to pick up arms speaks volumes about the revival of intense barbarism unleashed in India against Hindus and their institutions by Aurangzeb in the practice of Islamic orthodoxy and suppression of Sanatan Dharma.

It is also not surprising that in our recent past, once again, it was a spiritual leader- Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who came to the aid of Hindu society.  Swami Vivekananda admonished Hindus to be strong, be bold, and have confidence when Hindus had become dispossessed and weak, and were drifting rudderless. He rejuvenated a weak and morose Hindu nation with his enlightening lectures and started an awakening that finally culminated in the independence of India.

All major Hindu freedom fighters who led the struggle for independence from the British rule, Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856 – 1920), M. K. Gandhi (1869 – 1948), Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872 – 1950), C. Rajagopalachari (1878 – 1972), to name a few,  were scholars of Ramayana and Bhagavad Gita – the Hindu books of wisdoms – and have contributed rich writings as commentaries on them. It was no coincidence that Mahatama Gandhi (M. K. Gandhi) initially galvanized the Indian public in the struggle for freedom by invoking the dream of “Ram Rajya” – in which Dharma (Truth, Inner and outer purity, Compassion and Charity) reigned supreme and people lived without fear, in peace and prosperity – a message the people of north India understood well from reading Tulsi Ramayan and joined him whole heartedly in the struggle for India’s independence.

Even in contemporary India, the effect of Tulsi Ramayan in uplifting the nation cannot be overestimated.  In 1974, on the 400th anniversary of Sri Ramacharitamanasa, selections from it sung by the popular playback singer Mukesh (in the leading role, on music set by Murli Manohar Swaroop) were released on eight LP records by the Gramophone Company of India. They became an instant hit with the public and these records remain unique in their class. Those melodious renditions by Mukesh created appetite for more.  And soon, Ramayana and Mahabharata were produced in video format with actors and natural looking sets. The country came to a standstill during the hours these programs were first broadcast on TV.

They made every Indian proud of his/her Indian heritage irrespective of his/her religion. It would not be an overstatement that even a few portions of Sri Ramacharitamanasa sung by Mukesh started a cultural renaissance in north India. It created a mass awareness of India’s ancient culture and heritage as never before and the enriching effects of that mass awareness are still unfolding.  A thousand year long dark night of Adharma is slowly lifting as the dawn of knowledge and Dharma is slowly but clearly lightening the skies in India, i.e. Bharat!

References:

  1. Goswami Tulsidas, (1575).  SRI RAMACHARITAMANASA, Reprinted by Gita Press, Gorakhpur. With Hindi Text and English Translation (A Romanized Edition)
  1. Kalyana-Kalpataru, Vol 15, Manas Number 1, August 1949,Shree Geeta Press, Chandigarh
  1. Will Durant, 1954. The Story of Civilization – I. Our Oriental Heritage, Simon & Schuster, New York
  1. Sita Ram Goel, 1994.  The Story of Islamic Imperialism in India, 2nd ed., Voice of India, New Delhi
  1. Sita Ram Goel, 1990, Hindu Temples – What Happened to Them, Vol 1, Voice of India, New Delhi
  1. Sita Ram Goel, 1991, Hindu Temples – What Happened to Them, Vol 2, Voice of India, New Delhi
  1. K. S. Lal, 1994.  Muslim Slave System in Medieval India, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi
 
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