In his eighteenth-century retelling of the Rāmāyaṇa, Nāgarīdās (pseud. Sāvant Singh of Kishangarh) uses the Rāma narrative as a parable for his own life of struggle. As he is searching for allies to regain his throne occupied by his younger brother, he finds in the story ways to overcome his pain and to affirm his faith. Surprisingly, given his own circumstances, he does not focus on the deprivation of Rāma’s patrimony. Instead, he foregrounds the Sītā–Rāma romance and, I argue, feminizes the narrative notwithstanding the martial circumstances of its creation. Instead of vanavāsa as the marker of political loss, Nāgarīdās moves to the healing site of Vraja, transmuting the Rāma–Sītā story into the Rādhā–Kṛṣṇa model of love.
After many decades during which Rāmāyaṇa studies were dominated by the Sanskrit version attributed to Vālmīki, political events in India prompted western academia to shift attention to the vibrant ‘vernacular’ Rāmāyaṇa traditions. In particular, the rise of Hindutva in Indian politics and the controversy about the Rāma-janmabhūmi in Ayodhya, lead to what could be characterized as an academic cottage industry of ‘Many Rāmāyaṇas’.1 Several such recent studies come from a gender studies perspective and focus on vernacular retellings of the story that hold interest for women studies.2 Close attention has been paid to the way the relationship between Sītā and Rāma is portrayed in retellings by women.3 But that does not mean that all male-authored Rāmāyaṇas are necessarily patriarchal; some can indeed be said to be ‘feminized’ versions.4
An important but scholarly neglected set of retellings comes from the esoteric tradition of the Rāma-Rasikas that goes back to the sixteenth century (Lutgendorf 1991; Paramasivan 2009). In this tradition, adepts follow an intellectual, emotional, and physical training regime aimed at visualizing the pastimes of Sītā and Rāma, in particular their erotic relationship. Male authors often take a feminine pen name (ending on alī or sakhī) and identity with female characters in the mythic play. This whole tradition with its emphasis on role play forms a fascinating example of feminization of the Rāmāyaṇa; thus a work entitled “Sītāyana” was produced in this tradition around the turn of the eighteenth century (see Lutgendorf 1991, p. 230). Indeed the Rāma-Rasika approach could be understood as part of a wider trend of feminization of bhakti or devotion in general that deserves closer study.
In this article, I focus on a related eighteenth-century Braj Rāmāyaṇa retelling by a Rajput prince that foregrounds the Sītā–Rāma romance and, I will argue, feminizes the narrative notwithstanding the martial circumstances of its creation. This particular retelling is instructive because there is information that enables us to reconstruct in some detail the circumstances of the creation of the work and philosophical and other factors that may have influenced the way the story is written.
The author of this vernacular Rāmāyaṇa is Sāvant Singh of Kishangarh (1699–1764), famous for commissioning the beautiful miniatures of the heyday of the Kishangarh school of painting. Under the alias Nāgarīdās, he was a prolific Braj poet and Rādhā–Krishna devotee. It is little-known that he authored one work that is a retelling of the Rāma-story, under the title Rām-carit-mālā or ‘Garland of Songs on Rāma’s Story’. In fact the work is an anthology of thirty-one favorite padas, or songs, about two-third by other great devotees, but interpunctuated with his own.5 One could say it constitutes something of an annotated reading of the story. Why did this Krishna devotee author this work, and how did his Rādhā–Krishna devotional outlook affect the way in which he redacted the story?
In the final verse of Rām-carit-mālā, Nāgarīdās gives the date of compilation as 1749 (1806 VS) and the place as at the banks of the Hiṇḍani or Hindon, a river which flows between the Yamunā and Gaṅgā. Thus he composed it ‘on the road’, away from his home state of Kishangarh and its capital at the time, Rupnagar. In fact, he himself was in exile at the time. Why was that?
In 1748, Sāvant Singh was in Delhi when he received the bad news that his father had passed away. Things got worse when, taking advantage of his absence, his younger brother, Bahādur Singh usurped his throne. While a formal crowning ceremony for Sāvant Singh took place, he was impeded from returning home to rule in his home state. Unfortunately, the Mughal emperor, Muhammad Shāh, with whom he had been on excellent terms, passed away too, and the emperor’s son and successor was too insecure in his new position to be of help.
Thus, Sāvant Singh saw himself forced into exile, overtaken, one could say by a Rāmāyaṇa-like scenario: father deceased and brother on the throne. It is in the middle of this crisis situation, in fact the very next year, that he compiled his version of Rāma’s story. While his usurping brother had behaved very un-Bharata-like, Sāvant Singh too, rather unlike Rāma, was actively seeking alliances for regaining his throne. It was on his way to seek military support from the power-brokers at the time, the Marathas, that he compilated his Rāmāyaṇa. He was camping on the banks of the Hindon river on his way north to Kumaon, where the Marathas were fighting the Rohillas. Here we have a fascinating opportunity to see the politics at work behind a retelling the Rāmāyaṇa story: Nāgarīdās, exclusive Rādhā–Krishna devotee, turns to the Rāma story exactly at the point in his life when he had just lost his throne and the hostilities with his brother were in full swing. Within a year of completing the work, he would (unsuccessfully) lay siege to the capital Rupnagar with the help of the Jaipur ruler Īśvarī Singh (Sarkar 1964, 1.184). His version of the Rāmāyaṇa then has the potential to provide a window into how the mythic story of two brothers—both claimants of the throne of Ayodhya—could have real-life significance for the one who retells it. Surprisingly though, as it will turn out, the martial elements are not predominant in this version.
I will discuss the full political picture elsewhere (Pauwels forthcoming), but in this article I investigate the portrayal of the relationship between Rāma and Sītā.6 I will argue how and why his version represents a centralization of the feminine, which goes hand in hand with a theatricalization of the narrative. I am offering a reading of Nāgarīdās’ Rāmāyaṇa in conjunction with other works of his to come to a deeper understanding of the factors behind how the story is retold. Of particular use will be Nāgarīdās’ writings about his peregrinations in exile, which he cast as a prolonged pilgrimage, in his work Tīrthānand, ‘The Bliss of Pilgrimage’. He did not complete this work till 1753, but it records his travels over several years, from 1748 onwards. It is rare that we have so much first-hand background information for a pre-modern author. Moreover, we can avail ourselves of other works of different genres to synoptically read with the Rāmāyaṇa retelling. While it may be rather idiosyncratic and cannot be taken as typical, it still is instructive to help us think about other Rāmāyaṇīs for whom we have much less information available.
An exceptional enterprise
Rām-carit-mālā is Nāgarīdās’ only work that centers on Rāma, most of his poetry is overwhelmingly Krishna-oriented. Up till this point, Nāgarīdās had devoted only a handful of poems to Rāma, mostly composed for the celebration of Rāma’s birthday festival in the palace temple (collected in his Utsav-mālā ‘Garland of Festivals’ under Śrī Rāma-janmotsava).7 Another poem used the Rāmāyaṇa theme to make a general point of advice, namely never to listen to a woman:
This does not exactly entail a flattering treatment of the Rāmāyaṇa story or indeed of women. Yet certainly it constitutes an effective way to advise against listening to women who seek to influence men’s decision-making, presumably from behind the purdah. While it may come over as misogynic, this poem has to be understood as belonging to a particular genre. It is intended to be a ‘bon mot for the right moment’, a humorous comment on specific circumstances (now lost to us) made in a gathering of males. It was preserved so that the educated courtier would have this up his sleeve to impress his peers and superiors when the occasion would arise (for the genre, see Rao and Shulman (1998)). This comment should be weighed against the generally positive foregrounding of the feminine in Nāgarīdās’ oeuvre as a whole, which will become clear below.
In any case, Rām-carit-mālā appears to be quite an anomaly in Nāgarīdās’ works that otherwise profess exclusive devotion to Rādhā and Krishna.9 To explain the shift, we may turn to his own reflections on the issue of ananyatā or ‘exclusive devotion to one’s iṣṭadevatā’. A relevant passage can be found in another of his works, his hagiographic anthology, Pad-prasaṅg-mālā or ‘Garland of Vignettes for Songs’. There, Nāgarīdās reflects on the great Rāma devotee Tulsīdās’ unwillingness to prostrate himself before the Vallabhan image of Krishna, called Śrī Nātha jī, unless the image would appear as Rāma:
The Vaishnava Śrī Tulsīdās jū devoted himself exclusively to Śrī Rāmacandra jū, to the extent that he would not describe the virtues of other incarnations and avatāras, nor would he even listen to their praise, nor of his own volition would he go for darshana of other images (svarūpa) of God. But if other ardent devotees would lovingly take him for darshana, then how could he be disrespectful to them? So he would go. Still, except for the true image of Śrī Rāmacandra jū, he would not prostrate himself in front of other images. One time he passed by Śrī Govardhan. There Śrī Gusāī jū (Viṭṭhalnāth) took Tulsīdās jū for darshana of Śrī Govardhananātha jū. As he had darshana, Tulsīdās recited this couplet (Dohā):
What can I say about your appearance today! You look splendid, Lord (Nātha)!
The moment Tulsī bows his head, take10 bow and arrow in hand.
Indeed, the Lord obliges his devotees. At that time, everyone saw [Śrī Govardhananātha] holding bow and arrow in his hand. At that moment Tulsīdās jū prostrated himself [before him]. And all felt strongly drawn to [Tulsīdās] in their hearts (PPM 24).
At this point, Nāgarīdās adds a philosophical excursus on the topic. He explains this as a case of ‘difference in non-difference’ (Bhedābheda), stating that while Rāma and Krishna, and in fact all avatāras are ultimately the same, yet it is appropriate for devotees to feel an exclusive attachment to one only.
If, with regard to this story, someone were to raise an objection, asking ‘Why should there be difference in non-difference with regard to the avatāras?’ … then this is a story for him. The Śāstras themselves prescribe exclusivity. And at the same time the Śāstras prescribe not to hold on to difference in non-difference. Both injunctions are valid at the same time. There is no differentiation to a mind [that sees] divine majesty. Yet, how can one follow the way of affection (āsakti upāsanā) without differentiation? Here is an example. As far as the king’s people are concerned, be they in the capital or in the greater kingdom, they only need to understand that whether something concerns the king himself, or the king’s son, or the Lord’s advisers, all are comparable to the person of the king himself. They can assume that all these [functionaries] are equivalent (svarūpa) to the king. Yet, the wives of the king should not regard [the matter] with that same understanding. If they were to look upon it that way, they would be blameworthy. So the Śāstras say that depending on the beholder (pātra), both [assumptions] are true (PPM 24).
It is interesting that as an example he uses the trope of women’s marital fidelity. However, after thus establishing that it is fine, indeed morally upright, to stick to one preferred deity, Nāgarīdās nevertheless goes on to relate that Tulsīdās composed a song in praise of Krishna.
So Tulsīdās was such a great loyal devotee. A Vaishnava friend of his insisted often, ‘Mahārāj, you create such great poetry, and you have not composed even a single song for Śrī Krishnacandra.’ [The friend] kept mentioning this, and several days passed. Then, after much more insistence [by the friend], [Tulsīdās] composed a song. Even in this [poem] he did not leave behind his friendship to Śrī Rāmacandra jū. When they heard it, many devotees admired it, so the song obtained great fame. And here is that song:
I describe Avadh, [which is equivalent to] the village of Gokul!11
There reign Jānakī and her groom, here Shyāmā and Shyāma.
There flows the wondrous Sarayū River, here the waters of the Yamunā.
Whatever their shape, both take away the filth of Kaliyuga, and they remove all people’s woes.
One rules, a crown studded with jewels on his head, and at his side young Lakshmana.
The other wears a peacock crown, flute in hand, and at his side Balarāma (Haladhara), the cowherd.
One, Raghunātha, cheerfully liberated his friend, a boatsman.
The other, Yadunātha, liberated Nriga, pulled him out of the well with his own hand.12
One gave Śabarī [a place in] Paradise—[it was] Rāma, that ocean of virtue.
The other fulfilled all Kubjā’s desires when she brought him sandalwood.
For love of devotion, Śrī Rāma and Krishna came down as men on earth.
Tulsīdās: place your hope in either; one or the other will ferry you across.
Even this song is actually in praise of both Rāma and Krishna at the same time. Tulsīdās could apparently not quite get himself to give up his special attachment to Rāma.
It is against this background that we can understand Nāgarīdās’ project in Rām-carit-mālā. While Sītā in her marital fidelity to Rāma is the example of exclusive devotion, Nāgarīdās feels that it does not detract from his own ananyatā to incorporate the mirror-images of that Tulsī poem on Krishna. Thus he quotes songs by Krishna bhaktas in praise of Rāma, as well as composing some himself. Still, as we shall see, like Tulsīdās, Nāgarīdās too keeps some of in his case Krishna-chauvinism, notwithstanding this exercise in Rāmāyaṇa.
Reasons behind the creation of the text
There is also circumstantial evidence as to what prompted Nāgarīdās to write in praise of Rāma at exactly this point. His autobiographical pilgrimage account, Tīrthānand, describes his visit to the Rāmānandī monastery of Galta near Jaipur. It was the second stop on his ‘pilgrimage’, after leaving his homeland:
6. Then [came] the ashram of Gālava,13 full of pleasures,
But forbidden to non-believers,
Where hover large swarms of intoxicated bees.
The breeze thrice-pleasant, the pool pure water-filled,
7. Wooded mountain, waterfall and cowshed,14
One look at the place brings liberation: all false pride disappears.
We visited this sanctuary [worthy of]
Hari Ācārya, the wise sage,
8. Fortunate, friendly, peaceful and serene by nature,
Meditating on Rāma, bliss incarnate.
He obliged us with his gift of honor,
The perfect farewell gift:15 meditation on Raghunātha (Rāma). (TĀ 6-8)
Why did Sāvant Singh visit Galta at this time? Given his dire situation, it seems plausible that he had military purposes in mind. He might well have been intent on enlisting the warrior Nāgā Rāmānandīs, whose leader, Vrijānand, had supported the Jaipur king Īśvarī Singh in his fight against his half-brother Mādho Singh. If that were the case, we do not learn about it. Nāgarīdās does not allow such practical matters to detract from his pilgrimage scenario. We should take seriously though what he conveys in his description, namely the sense that he felt right at home in Galta. We know the place had a distinct erotic Rāma-Rasika bhakti ambience in the mid-eighteenth century, which was very accommodating of Krishna bhakti. In fact, Rāma-Rasika bhakti traces its lineage back to Galta-founder’s, Krishnadās Payohārī’s, disciple Agradās (see Siṃha 1957, pp. 379–82). Agradās’ major work, Dhyān-mañjarī or ‘Anthology on Meditation’, an extended vision of Sītā and Rāma’s eternal sporting in Sāket, one of the seminal works of the tradition, was influenced by contemporary Krishna bhakti works (McGregor 1983).16 Many Rāma-Rasikas went to Vrindaban to find preceptors (Lutgendorf 1991, p. 228), thus there was a lively exchange between Rāma and Krishna bhaktas with little of the exclusivist soul-searching ascribed to Tulsīdās mentioned above.17 In the early eighteenth century, the abbot Rāmprapanna had been active in developing further the erotic Rāma-Rasika bhakti, modelled after Krishna bhakti. He is said to have organized Rās-līlās in Galta (Horstmann 2002, p. 158, on the basis of nineteenth-century sectarian accounts).
In the excerpt from Tīrthānand, Nāgarīdās mentions meeting the abbot Hari Ācārya (r. 1733–1756).18 Hari Ācārya too was famous for organising Rās-līlās, such as for the festival of Rāma’s wedding. Like Nāgarīdās, he was a poet (with the pen name ‘Hari-sahacarī’), and he was heavily influenced by Krishnaite models: he wrote a Hindī Aṣṭ-yām and a Sanskrit Jānakī-gīta, modelled after Gīta-govinda (Siṃha 1957, pp. 408–09). Small wonder that Nāgarīdās seems to have been very positively impressed by him. One imagines them discussing matters of devotion, poetry, and theatre, rather than war.
Nāgarīdās specifies that the abbot’s farewell-gift was ‘meditation on Raghunātha’ (Raghunātha dhyāna, TĀ 8). The term dhyāna has a particular importance in the Rasika-sampradāya, as it figures for instance in the title of Agradās’ seminal work Dhyān-mañjarī (cf. also Siṃha 1957, pp. 212–13).19 In that light, it may not be coincidence that Nāgarīdās starts out Rām-carit-mālā with the verb derived from the same root as that noun (dhyāyake): ‘I meditate on the feet of Sītā and Rāma, soft [as] a fresh lotus’ (Siyā rāma pada dhyāyake, komala kamala navīna). While such invocations may be generic, still he indicates as much as that the visit to Galta and the charisma of the abbot were a source of inspiration. Furthermore, in the last lines of Rām-carit-mālā, Nāgarīdās states his purpose, or at least the desired effect as
If [you] listen to or recite this book for one hour, each watch of the day,
Handsome Siyā-Rāma will dwell forever in [your] heart (RCM 32).
His focus, then, is on meditation is on meditation on the divine pair in a rasika mode.20 Importantly, these lines show that this anthology is intended for ‘religious reading’, a deep reading of the meditative and transformative type (term from Griffiths 1999, pp. ix–x). Thus, reading Rām-carit-mālā against this background from Tīrthānand clues us in to the Rāma-Rasika interpretations, which will help unveil a perspective not immediately apparent at first sight. This will reveal a positive foregrounding of the feminine quite contrary to what the disparaging remarks cited above might lead us to expect.
Rāma-Rasika elements, theatricalization, and foregrounding the feminine
Rāma and Sītā’s romance
Most notably, Nāgarīdās allots most space to Rāma and Sītā’s romantic relationship: their falling in love, the Svayaṃvara ceremony and the wedding, which comprise of the longest poems in the work. These are all favourite topics for Rāma-Rasikas. First, Nāgarīdās celebrates the falling in love of Sītā and Rāma in the flower garden (RCM 15). Given the circumstantial evidence, it seems quite natural to do so for a Krishna devotee who had recently been in communication with the Rāma-Rasika abbot of Galta.
Entering Janaka’s capital, and the first sight when roaming in the garden
Janaka’s daughter has entered the garden.
She is on her way with a group of friends to worship the bow with flowers.
The ravishing sound of their singing is accompanied by flute, vīṇā and drum.
Sītā, surrounded by girlfriends fanning her, shines as the moon among the stars.
The sound of anklets resounds in the garden bowers, attracting everyone’s delighted attention.
Everywhere bending trees incline, mistaking the [girls’] splendor for golden vines.
From the other side come the handsome Raghu-heroes, sent by the sage to collect flowers.
All of a sudden they meet each other, their eyes wide with the purest beauty.
His eyes and hers (ita uta) [fill with tears, like] drops on lotus petals. They only can behold [each other].
Kāmadeva hesitates to take aim with his arrows: both have been struck [already]!
As they remember respect for their elders, they each turn their heart away reluctantly.
Through their eyes, their hearts have tasted the sublime, suffused with wondrous love—
A passion without rules of modesty (maryādā), [even though the lovers] are modesty incarnate.
For the purpose of [tasting] that passion, he shall be born in Nanda’s house as the dance master (Naṭanāgara, i.e., Krishna).21
As in Nāgarīdās’ Rādhā-Krishna poetry, in his portrayal of Rāma and Sītā’s falling in love, the eyes receive special attention. The mutual beholding of the divine pair is central in Tulsīdās’ Rām-carit-mānas too, so Nāgarīdās is in good company.
Most notable is the ending of the poem. Nāgarīdās ends with the observation that the strong passionate love Rāma feels for Sītā is out of character: he is after all maryādā puruṣottama. Nāgarīdās specifies that Rāma will have to return as Krishna to taste such passion in full. Thus he makes an explicit link with the poetry he is more famous for. Here, Nāgarīdās betrays a marked Krishna chauvinism. Like Tulsīdās, about whom he told us in his hagiography, he himself too remained loyal to his iṣṭa-devatā even while composing in praise of his fellow-avatāra.
Next come the longest poems of this anthology, and they too are on romantic Rāma themes: the Svayaṃvara (RCM 16) and the wedding ceremonies (RCM 17). These all rhyme well with the Rādhā-Krishna wedding themes that Nāgarīdās composed on elsewhere and fit the Krishna-Rasika poet’s focus on romantic topics. But they are also favorite subjects of the Rāma-Rasikas, who foregrounded them in the Rās-līlās they staged.
The Tournament for the Bride
To arrange for Sītā’s marriage, Janaka has planned a tournament—
The spectacle is amazing to behold, a balm to the eyes of all.22
In every country, when young princes hear the news, they dress in their finery.
With elephants and horses, armies and armaments, they march across the land, gathering in Mithilā.23
The sight of this royal splendor leaves people humbled and amazed:
‘The one Kāmadeva was burned by Hara (Shiva), [and here are] a thousand Kāmadevas; where did they come from?’
Behind them follow patient Raghuvīra and Laghuvīra (his younger brother).
When the sun rises, in house after house the oil lamps dim, as if uncovered.24
The kings gaze on as if marveling at elephants in rut. The Kāmadevas’ bravado25 has vanished.
Handsome like a young lion, standing out in comportment, [Rāma is] the darling [of all].
It takes one hundred and eight great and strong men and much effort to bring out the bow into the assembly.
Working continuously are strong-bodied men [whose] arms have put out ten fires.26
A herald stands up in the assembly of kings, and announces thus:
“This is the condition Janaka has set: ‘The one who can draw [the bow] will marry his daughter.’”
Some only look at that bow and turn back with various excuses.
Some try to lift it, but fall flat onto the ground; Some encourage others to lift it.
Even heroes with the strength each of ten thousand elephants, simply become exhausted.
[Our] two heroes look at each other with a smile—how pleasing they look!
Then Raghuvara, splendid like a dark raincloud, smiles as he turns to Śrī Sītā.
In a flash of lightening, he tucks up his loincloth and approaches the bow.
At that moment, the blind and the aged, men and women, gods and sages, kings and queens,
Beholding this spectacle of the hero of the Raghu Race—all start to ululate in unison.
Forthwith he grasps it! Instantly he lifts it! Crack!— and he breaks the bow and throws it down.
Janaka is relieved, the young girls rejoice, Sītā now feels her life breath return.
All shout “Bravo” over and over; the immortals in the sky shower down flowers.
Nanddās surrenders himself (bali) again and again to that event. Auspicious songs are sung in every house.
This poem by Nanddās that Nāgarīdās selected fits with Rāma-Rasika preferences. For one, it refers to Sītā as Śrī Sītā, which suggests identification with Vishnu’s consort Śrī. Similarly, the mentioning of her ‘feeling her life breath return’, can be taken as an indication of Rāma and Sītā being eka prāṇa, dvai deha or ‘one breath in two bodies’, referring to the ultimate ontological unity of the divine pair according to Rāma-Rasika theology.
The poem also contains several theatrical elements that evoke the Rāma-līlā scenarios. It starts by evoking a strong processional aspect, culminating in a jhāṅkī of the arrival of the two brothers, allowing for the audience’s darshana.27 Then, the poet builds up towards the climax of Rāma’s lifting of the bow by the theatrical device of the contest that is replete with comedy (hāsya rasa).28 The climax is even more theatrical as it invites audience participation in the ululation that all join at that moment. One imagines this would be a poem that Hari Ācārya with his predeliction for Rāma-līlās would have enjoyed, and perhaps he and Nāgarīdās shared this Nanddās poem together in Galta. Similarly, the next, long poem on the wedding is very theatrical:
The Wedding and Welcoming in Ayodhya
The Avadh princes are the four grooms, setting off [in procession] to the royal palace, to marry Janaka’s girls.
handsomely dressed in their red wedding costume, exuding fragrant perfume, they leave everyone amazed, [as if] beholding Kāmadeva’s beauty.
On their heads, the grooms’ headdresses (sehras) are studded with jewellery; [underneath,] their faces shine brightly like perfect moons.
Around their necks flash diamonds in medallions. [They] chew betel, and when they smile, their teeth shine like pearls [among] rubies.
The groom’s entourage is richly attired and bejewelled, dazzling like the sun and its rays.
Dancers, splendidly arrayed, take the stage and dance to the beat of large kettle drums, instrumental interludes, and singing (parana).
Janakpur’s mansions, palaces, roads, woods and gardens are inlaid with jewels; who can describe such beauty?
Everyone has put on his finery to watch the wedding. Today, it looks like heaven has descended to earth.
Taking the reins (of the grooms’ horses),29 they lead them from the grooms’ quarters (janavāsā). The ceremony is completed—a spectacle with throngs of men, elephants, horses, and monkeys.
There, countless fireworks30 are set off, palace and sky set aflame as if it has become day at that very moment.
Horses, elephants, garments, and all types of jewellery are given away just for the asking,31 without the slightest hint of holding back.
Bards sing songs of praise, describing lofty deeds anew. Genealogists32 gather to recite the ancestry of both families.
As the dignitaries mount the horses, the princes are overwhelmed (with joy). Well-drilled horses from Kekāna33 dance to great acclaim.
From the other side comes King Janaka with his own army. Overcome with love, he welcomes and accompanies [the princes], considering them the jewels of his life.34
In-laws meet their counterparts, delighting in seeing one another. The womenfolk gather and begin singing (ritual) insults (gālī).35
The city women climb to the balconies and distribute jewels and garments. They swoon as they behold the sun of the Raghu dynasty.
[The grooms] reach the door where four toranas36 are set up. Mounted on their elephants, they touch them with their swords.
As they dismount and enter, they give the servants their elephants as (customary) wedding gifts. Everyone cheers as they catch a glimpse of the princes.
Overjoyed, all the city women give every possession away, saying, “We’ve touched the very embodiments of virtue, the four princes.”
The priests of Janaka’s family come to perform the welcome ceremony (āratī). At that moment pearls appear to fall like snow.
Officials bring plates of jewels and rubies, Brahmins bless with forehead marks and women [bless] with unbroken rice.
At the same time, skilled courtesans sing sweet Sohilā37 songs most charmingly.
Even gods and half-gods are in attendance to witness with [their own] eyes, to reach life’s happy destiny.
Wondrous events abound, multitudes arrive in the air from all directions, filling up the sky.
Standing under the bridal canopy, the high-priests (Brahmins) perform according to custom the sacred wedding rites.
Four pavillions (maṇḍapas)38 are set up; the perfect brides and grooms are brought there in procession.
As their garments are tied together, their hands made to touch, bride and groom see each other’s delight.
They walk around the fire to solemnize the wedding. The king gives away the brides’ hands in the Kanyā-dāna ceremony.39
The young men and women delight in feeding each other morsels of rice and milk.40
[The grooms] take advantage of the moment to gaze at the autumnal moon-faces (of their brides). The princes of Avadh feel their hearts stir with attraction.
The princesses too, use that moment to gaze at their handsome grooms’ complexions. They judge their husbands a perfect fit.
That day in that city, auspiciousness reached its peak; but in Lanka fear prevailed, [as] clouds rained blood.
Brahmins receive ritual payment of villages, elephants and horses, chariots, jewelry and garments—who can enumerate it [all]?
The king opens the doors of his treasury: “Beggars, take whatever you can carry.”
Then they dine, a four-course dinner; they continue to eat heartily, although many are satisfied [already].
They worship the clan-deity and play dice at the place where beds are spread for them to recline.
Dowry is given in abundance, as are ritual gifts of garments (paharāvanī). The king of Avadh is utterly pleased.
Then he [in turn] cheerfully makes donations to the beggars of countless garments, jewelry, elephants and horses.
The princes set off with their new brides to their own town, as the great army advances with dignity.
The loud din of countless instruments echoes in all four directions, like deep thunder, as the kettle-drums boom.
In the few days it takes to reach Avadh, ninefold treasures fill every beggar’s bowl to the brim.41
Then they cross the border. The four noble brothers, the newly wedded princes, perform the tying-of-the-knot ceremony there [again].
The three mothers approach with their maids-in-waiting and stage a magnificent welcoming ceremony (āratī).
After the āratī, donations of jewels and rubies follow again. With this ceremony, misfortune is averted from Vrindāban’s Lords.
(RCM 17; Gītāmrita-gaṅgā 13.93, see Vrindābandevācārya 1998)
The last line gives the author’s name: Vrindāban Ācārya. He was the abbot of Salemabad, a Nimbārkan monastery near Kishangarh, who was very influential with the Kishangarhi palace women. Nāgarīdās’ own mother, as well as his stepmother, seem to have held him in high esteem. Thus there was a very strong link between the family of Nāgarīdās, the compiler, and Vrindāban Ācārya, the author of this particular poem. The description contains several elements typical for Rajput weddings, such as those of Nāgarīdās’ mother and stepmother, at which Vrindāban Ācārya assisted. That this influential Krishnaite guru composed such a moving and lovingly crafted poem on the Rāma–Sītā wedding further illustrates the close interchange between Krishna- and Rāma-Rasika milieus at the time. Again, one can imagine the abbot of Galta enjoying this poem as perhaps Nāgarīdās recited it for him. In several ways this poem is reminiscent of the popular Rāma-līlās on the theme of Rāma-Sītā-vivāha or celebration of Rāma and Sītā’s wedding. The excerpt abounds in moments of jhāṅkīs, allowing for the audience’s auspicious darshana, such as the ceremonial reception of the grooms, the various marriage rituals themselves, especially the brides’ and grooms’ first gazing upon each other’s face, the goodbye in Mithila and the reception back home in Ayodhya. It also is set up for audience participation in the mythical events staged, notably in the processional arrival and return of the grooms’ party.
Nāgarīdās’ feminine-centred approach in his retelling is also apparent in the poems where he lovingly dwells on Sītā’s feelings after she is separated from Rāma. He selects two poignant poems by Sūrdās that contain her message for her husband conveyed via Hanumān. This proportionally strong interest in Sītā’s feelings in exile fits well with the Krishna universe where the viraha of the Gopīs and Rādhā is ubiquitous. We hear Sītā’s desperate voice translated through the categories of Krishna bhakti:
The songs of [Sītā’s] message, as told to Hanumān
‘This creature looks like a monkey! How can I convey my message [to him]?42
Hear me, monkey, how much longer can I keep (for Rāma’s sake) my life breaths (prānani) from slipping away?43
They are so unpredictable—when they wish to leave, they don’t stop to think.
Again and again I try hard to stop them at [life’s] main gate, threatening them with [God’s] Name.
Hanumant,44 in my despair, I repeat again and again, ‘I’m so afraid.’
Sūr: Has [Rāma] ever heard45 anyone sorrowing [like this], my beloved [Rāma], who is so compassionate?’
(RCM 20) (Sūr-sāgar 9.536; Vājpeyī 1978, 1.181)
Here Sītā is lamenting her plight: captive and powerless. She wonders why she has not yet died in her husband’s absence. Her desire for suicide is counterbalanced by a sense of duty to preserve her life for her husband. It is a vivid picture of the ‘suicidal quandary’ she finds herself in, which, for the corresponding Vālmīkian episode, has been analysed perceptively by Sally Goldman (2001, pp. 223–38). Sītā’s feelings there are well summarised in her moment of desperate reflection on women’s helplessness, as she curses her plight: dhig astu paravaśyatām ‘How wretched to be under the power of another’ (ib. 223). The Vālmīkian Sītā is desperate and wishes to take her life, yet she realises that it is not hers to take, it belongs to her husband, whose permission she cannot obtain. She reasons about her circumstances, wondering what may be the cause, blaming herself, and what may delay her husband’s rescuing her, perhaps he has forgotten her, or has been killed. She is carried along by the downward spiral of her own logic through the ‘trauma of abandonment’ into the ultimate despair that she has nothing left to stay alive for (ib. 232-6). In the Sūrdās poem that Nāgarīdās quotes, she splits herself up in two: her instinct-driven and duty-conscious selves. On the one hand, she says, her life-breaths, whom she calls capala or ‘slippery’, seek to slip away and escape, and on the other, her conscious self is their ‘guard’ (pahiro deta) stationed at the ‘main gate’ or the mouth (mukha dvāra) to keep them in. She casts her guarding service as an impossibly difficult mission in the service of Rāma, whose name she constantly invokes to keep her wayward breaths in place. Yet she despairs of her ability to keep doing so successfully. In the last line, she uses one of Rāma’s names or epithets karuṇāmaya (‘full of compassion’), hinting that Rāma should live up to his fame and come and release her from this plight.
In Vālmīki’s version this is a soliloquy, ending with the arrival of Hanumān who revives her hope. In this vernacular version, it takes the form of a message delivered via the monkey. This framing is explicit in the refrain of the song, Sītā’s aside, which captures the impossibility of the situation: how can a monkey understand this quandary? In mediating her message through the monkey’s report, a layer of irony is added, relativizing the Vālmikian frame. It begs the question whether we can really hear Sītā’s voice, as it comes to us mediated through the layers of messengers and self-censorship.
This is also true for the second Sūrdās poem, which again allows us to overhear a diffident Sītā, acutely aware of the incongruity of delivering an intimate message for her husband via a monkey:
“Please put in a good word for me.
First invoke Raghunātha’s name and fall at his feet. Then hand this jewel over to him.
On the bank of the Mandākinī, on a crystal rock, [rubbing] face to face, we made a tilaka.
How can I even speak about this to you, monkey? Even though I must tell you now, as I remember our love, my chest tightens.46
You are Hanumant, the holy son of the wind. Could you tell him what I have just conveyed to you?
Sūr: Show [the jewel] as [you] come [before Rāma’s] eyes; his presence extinguishes all sin and sorrow, which is so hard to endure.“47
(RCM 21) (Sūr-sāgar 9.545; Vājpeyī 1978, 1.184; some variants)
Sītā is providing Hanumān with both physical evidence of his having found her (the jewel alluded to in the last line), as well as an oral message including a piece of information that only she and Rāma were privy to. This will convince Rāṃa that the monkey indeed has found the right lady. She alludes to an intimate moment that she and Rāṃa shared during their exile, which only they know about. It remains mysterious, unclear to the uninitiated what the story behind it is, except that it took place on the bank of the Mandākinī and involves a tilaka. Perhaps Sītā’s tilaka had gotten wiped off and Rāma lovingly made her a new one.48 The verse seems to say he did so by rubbing his face against hers. Or perhaps in love-making, her tilaka rubbed off on his chest.49 This is the kind of secret (rahasya) that the Rāma-Rasikas are fond of. Sītā is cryptic about it, again within the story’s frame because she is very self-conscious about divulging this detail of human love to a monkey. But she also envies him, as he shortly will see Rāma, whom she herself longs so much to behold. The bitter-sweetness of these memories certainly adds an element of poignancy.
Nāgarīdās was not ready to leave the topic at that. In the next poem, he continues the thread, satisfying our curiosity about how Hanumān delivers this message.
A song with Hanumān’s report to Raghupati
‘Quick now, Lord of the Raghus, you must mount a [war] effort.
Cross the ocean with all due speed. All you have to do is give these heroes your royal command.
May I swiftly cross this pond,50 shaded by trees and rocks,
Before a second ocean rises from the tears of Sītā’s eyes!
That is the reason that I am so agitated and I beg you over and over, O Ocean of Mercy:
Lord of Sūrdās, stem this flood of calamity and grant [her] your darshana.’
(RCM 22; Sūr-sāgar 9.554; Vājpeyī 1978: 1.187)
Hanumān surely got the essence of Sītā’s drift: no time to lose! In his ‘military communiqué’ (vijñapti), he urges Rāma to act quickly: vega is repeated thrice in the first three lines of the song (RCM 22), and comes back in the refrain again and again. It is not until the fifth line that he reveals why: Sītā’s tears will create a much bigger problem: the streams of tears will accumulate into an ocean, much harder to cross than the mere ‘watering hole’ (pau) they have to deal with now! The Lord, himself an ocean (of mercy), should sure be able to appreciate this time-sensitive information. He has to stem the flood before it gets out of hand. Thus, even in the military planning, the love of the divine pair, symbolised in Sītā’s tears, is what drives the story, decidedly a Rāma-Rasika approach. And again, we recognise the foregrounding of viraha that animates so much Rādhā–Krishna poetry composed by Nāgarīdās.
Eventually, of course, as in all Rāmāyaṇas, the war is won and Sītā is restored to her husband. The audience expects next to hear about the so-called Agni-parīkṣā, or ‘Trial by fire’. However, Nāgarīdās omits that sad episode entirely, instead dwelling on the joyful reunion!
Meeting with Sītā at Rāma’s triumph
28. The people’s joy reaches a climax today.
Moon-faced Sītā is on her way to meet the spotless Moon of the Raghu Race.
Conch shells and drums resound,51 the sounds of auspicious songs fills the air.
Vibhīṣaṇa and Hanumān in front, the chamberlains, [all] devotees,
They all come running, overjoyed as they hear the tumult.
The mighty army of monkeys and bears surges forward for darshana.
In front are the rod-carriers [striking] blows when their way is obstructed.
Then from the Lord came the command in front of all: ‘Hanumān, bring them to a halt.’
Sītā then left the palanquin, and walked as she had been ordered.
She looked like lightning flashing among the clouds of Rāma’s army.
Sand flew up and filled the sky [as] armies with many heroes thronged together.
Nāgardās: [such is] the joy of Jānakī and Raghunātha’s reunion.
Nāgarīdās here in his own words, describes the reunion of Sītā and Rāma as an occasion of joy. Most remarkably, there is no hint of a fire ordeal unless one reads it between the lines in the comparison of Sītā with lightning, but that would be rather far-fetched. Sītā dismounts from her palanquin, but this is not seen as humiliating, rather a joyous occasion of darshana for the army. The refrain of this poem indeed casts it all as bliss: ‘The people’s joy reaches a climax today’ (bāṛhyo āju lokānanda). Nāgarīdās has in this poem of his own making redacted the sorrow and tension out of this delicate moment of reunion.
This omission of Sītā’s Agni-parīkṣā begs the issue of the elasticity of the story, or otherwise put: when does a Rāmāyaṇa cease to be a Rāmāyaṇa, a question raised by Velcheru Narayana Rao (2004). We can ask: when does Sītā stop being Sītā? Can she still be Sītā if she does not prove her loyalty by undergoing the trial by fire? Can a retelling that thus violates ‘the narrative grammar’ of the story still be called Rāmāyaṇa? Rao answers in the affirmative and shows that it is not just modern versions that deviate from the perceived to be traditional script. We see here an eighteenth-century example. While Sāvant Singh as a Rajput, part of the landed aristocracy, could be expected to champion purity of lineage, he did not make Sītā undergo the loyalty ordeal. While he was preoccupied with his contest for his kingdom, he chose not to put Sītā, symbol of land, to the test. Perhaps his commitment to the Rādhā–Krishna mythology trumped the compulsion of the story. Whereas Rao classifies Sītā’s story as a ‘heroine of the land narrative’, he characterises the Rādhā–Krishna mythology as a pastoral narrative (2004, pp. 219–20). This opens the door to questioning to what extent ‘pastoral narratives’ can overtake ‘land narratives’ irrespective of the social milieu of the author and his audience.
In conclusion, we see in Nāgarīdās’ Rām-carit-mālā a strong foregrounding of romantic themes and an emphasis of Rāma and Sītā’s relationship and their feelings. This ‘feminization’ may be counter to what one would expect given the context of the composition, as he was on his way to enlist the Marathas as allies to fight his brother. One might have expected, given his existential situation, that the Rajput king would focus on martial themes, or the palace intrigue and the injustice perpetrated on Rāma. In fact, he does not even mention the latter, and devotes very little airtime to the former, choosing rather to reserve his longest poems for the romantic aspects of Rāma and Sītā’s relationship.
This feminization of the story may seem natural for a Rādhā–Krishna devotee. However, there is more going on. There is evidence that this feminization may also have been inspired by Rāma-Rasika influence. Nāgarīdās' visit to the Rāmānandī monastery in Galta may originally have had a military purpose, namely to enlist the help of the warrior-Rāmānandīs. However, in his Tīrthānand he represents it as a spiritual experience, sharing his Rasika predilections with Hari Ācārya, the abbot. The take-away from the visit, he says was meditation (dhyāna) on Rāma. The Rāma-Rasika influence in Rām-carit-mālā can be traced to this meaningful encounter through the reference to meditation (dhyāna) on Sītā-Rāma in the introduction and conclusion of the work. Whether purposely or nor, it echoes the evaluation of the meeting with the Galta abbot in Nāgarīdās' pilgrimage description Tīrthānand.
Apart from the focus on the Sītā–Rāma relationship, there is another Rāma-Rasika current underlying the work, namely a disinterest in plot development but rather focus on poignant vignettes of deep feelings of love for Rāma. Those moments of heightened emotional intensity lend themselves well to theatrical adaptation and tableau (jhānkī). Indeed, the longest poems analysed above also turn out to be most theatrical, showing a marked affinity with the dramatic genre of Rās-līlā. This is typical for the Rāma-Rasika theological outlook, which shows a predeliction for the rasa theory, developed first with regard to drama. Rāma-Rasika praxis privileges the methodologies of role-playing and theatrical experiences to enter the Lord’s play, as Philip Lutgendorf has pointed out (1991, p. 219). In his recreation of the Rāma story, likewise Nāgarīdās followed suit and dived deep in the feelings of Sītā, to the point of emotional catharsis in the auspicious happy ending overflowing with bliss.
It may well be that the dethroned prince, who found himself in a real-life Rāmāyaṇa-like scenario, originally approached the Rāmānandīs of Galta for military help. However, by his own account, when he left the monastery, he had received a more precious gift, he had been shown the path to a meditative experience of Rāma. The Rāmāyaṇa he ended up composing was not a martial one. Nāgarīdās’ ‘feminized’ reworking of the Rāmāyaṇa allowed for a creative transformation of the myth into a theatrical experience culminating in a blissful happy ending.
I am grateful to Mandakranta and Tirthankara Bose and John and Mary Brockington for kindly including me in the symposium held at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies in Oxford on 12–13 July 2014. I have benefited from their comments and those of the other participants and the audience. I also want to acknowledge the help of Susan Miller (MA English, Brown College) to turn the translations into better English.