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Kailash Vajpeyi's ‘Ram in Our Faith’ Speaks to Us Even Today

The figure of Ram has been reinscribed in Ayodhya in a form that goes against everything we have known and loved about him for centuries. A reminder of the true Ram we are in danger of forgetting seemed in order.
Photo courtesy of Ananya Vajpeyi.

The following article in Hindi by my father, the late Kailash Vajpeyi (d. 2015), titled “Āsthā men Rām”, first appeared in Kadambini magazine in April 2013. The piece was republished on January 22, 2024, in the Hindustan newspaper.

I decided to translate it for an English language readership because it describes an approach to the deity Ram, to his worship and to the literature centred around him (mainly the Sanskrit epic by Valmiki, the Rāmāyaṇa, and the medieval Awadhī epic poem by Tulsidas, the Rāmcaritmānas), in terms that would surely appeal to most devotees and believers, as well as to scholars and historians.

The beauty, compassion and erudition evident in this short essay provide a sharp counterpoint to the ways in which Ram is sought to be reimagined and represented today.

The story of Ram, the Rāmakathā, has been central to the religious, literary and political imagination of India for at least two millennia, across many languages, and continues to enjoy a comparable if not a greater centrality in our own time.

But the figure of this familiar and revered god has been reinscribed in Ayodhya at the new temple on January 22, 2024 in a form that goes against everything we have known and loved about him for centuries. A reminder of the true Ram we are in danger of forgetting seemed in order.

I am grateful to Imre Bangha and Jack Hawley for helping me to translate poem 111 (“Keshav kahi na jāye, kā kahiye”) from Tulsidas’s Vinay Patrikā, quoted at the end of this article, with some help from an earlier translation by F.R. Allchin.

I have been bold enough to use my own words to render it in English, knowing that many readers will recognise the poem in the original anyway and understand full well how important it is in the literature and criticism around Tulsidas’s unparalleled oeuvre.

It is a curious choice for my father to cite this poem, since its esoteric imagery is reminiscent of the Nirgun poetry of Kabir, rather than the Sagun bhakti of Tulsidas himself.

Also read: Indian Civilisation Is Being Disrobed in the City of Ram

The article also ends with Kabir, swerving away somewhat abruptly from the preceding text. To my mind, this hints at the author’s own preference for a rather more abstract, philosophical and universal symbol of Ram than the epic protagonist, divine king and idealised hero who emerges from the narrative poetry of Valmiki and Tulsidas.

But whatever our own inclination, between a sagun Ram or a nirgun Ram, Tulsi’s Ram or Kabir’s Ram (or indeed Gandhi’s Ram, who is capacious enough to embrace religious difference and embody a secular vision), it is important that we reclaim the personal god, literary character and ethical ideal come down to us under the sign of Ram.

Kailash Vajpeyi’s sensibility reminds us of the broad and deep reservoir of Indian faith, with sweet waters flowing in from many diverse traditions of poetry and devotion. Ram cannot be imprisoned in narrow walls. He is born in the heart of the believer, and dwells there for all eternity.

Ananya Vajpeyi.


Ram in our Faith

Kailash Vajpeyi

The word “āsthā” (“faith”) straightaway signifies devotion, reverence and an attitude of surrender.

We are born unmarked. But over time, experience leaves its traces on the blank slate of the self. Deep within us there begins to arise a symbol, planted like a seed in our consciousness, spreading a diffuse fragrance, dream-like, rocked gently by the waves of our innermost being. Clouds gather in the environment that surrounds us, and their soft rain nurtures this seed, watering it steadily until it blossoms forth.

With time, we become transfixed by the colour and form of that which has flowered within, rapt in the beauty of its full-blown petals, and then, spontaneously, there bursts forth from our lips, a prayer.

The form it takes could be anything, it does not matter. It is not subject to logical interpretation. All that can be said is that the essence of this prayer arising from deep within us is a short, sweet and pleasing word: “Ram”, a name blended effortlessly into the lives of millions of people, sheltering us like the ageless sky.

Also read: From Iqbal to Gandhi, Rediscovering What Rama Means for Indians

Like the sky, this name has no history. Like the sky, it is always there, we are never parted from it. It is blue, like the sky.

But Ram is no empty signifier! The word courses like blood through our body, beats like the heart in our breast. It can be called with a thousand different names. It is the breath of our breath. We come to realise its greatness when at the mere utterance of it, our difficulties fall to pieces.

It’s hard to say how many poets, inspired by Ram’s towering personality, have sung paeans to their deity; how many sculptors have carved their deity’s face from stone. But the epic poets Valmiki and Vyas are the two eyes of our cultural history, representing two points of view.

From one perspective, the ultimate protagonist is Sri Ram, and from the other, it is Sri Krishna. The two visionary poets, with their intellectual creativity, have established through their respective protagonists the principles of harmonious integration (Ram) and analytical differentiation (Krishna), thereby grafting onto the two avatars, manifested in the human world, the godliness, the divinity, the effulgence that the human spirit is capable of embodying.

The visionary poet here becomes synonymous with the Creator, in the very sense meant by the Ṛgveda’s address: “You are the Ocean, O Omniscient Poet!” (RV 9:86:29).

When a poet is able to bind into a poetic structure all of time past and to come, it is then that a timeless epic is set into motion. In our literary tradition, time is the soul of poetry, and its metrical quality, its music is what creates an immeasurable, unbounded world of the imagination.

Surely there is something special in the character of Ram, that the story of the Ramayana flows like a tumbling river across steep plateaus and around dense jungles, polishing its banks as it rushes towards a merger with the sea.

Within the vast cultural horizon of India, is there any region untouched by the long-armed Ram? Surely it is on account of Ram’s irresistible personality that his life-story travelled across the Indian Ocean to Java, Sumatra, Cambodia and Thailand, as far west as Greece and as far east as Japan, glittering like a diamond necklace in the civilisational memories of the lands surrounding the subcontinent.

Scenes from the Thai Ramayana at a temple in Bangkok. Photo: Jpatokal/Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

The creative power of the Ramayana is such that it cannot be dismissed as art for art’s sake. The oeuvre of the first poet, Valmiki, is a poetic reflection of the luminosity inherent in human life. His epic poem constitutes a perfect representation, vividly illuminating every human endeavour with a bright light.

We all know that there are two ways to live. One path is that of the heart, of faith and of devotion; the other, that of the ego, of logic and devoid of faith.

Tulsidas had surrendered his life and fate to Ram. Ram and Ram alone was the acme of his faith. When it comes to the supreme deity, the singular target of his deepest devotion and his complete surrender, for Tulsi that is Ram and only Ram.

The special thing about surrender is that if it is to happen, when it happens, it can only be to the One – and that’s how it was for Tulsidas.

Sometimes you hear clever people saying that they’re dedicating themselves to everyone. This is a sly way of avoiding the question of the One.

A category like “Humanity” is an illusion. There are humans everywhere. Humans are all around us. Those who are incapable of loving one single human being say that they love all of humankind, ‘Humanity’ itself.

In order to love someone, another human being, you have to leave your ego behind. Those who cannot do so say that they love ‘Humanity’, because they know that ‘Humanity’ isn’t going to question them or demand anything in the name of this love.

That suffix “-ity” that enables an abstract construction like “Humanity” is very convenient. It allows you to evade the responsibility that comes with dedicating yourself to the One.

The Ur-Poet Valmiki’s poem has 24,000 verses (shloka) arranged into 500 chapters (sarga). At the head of every 1,000 verses stands a syllable of the Gayatri Mantra, which has 24 syllables.

There are two different styles of recitation [presumably of the Valmiki Rāmāyaṇa, which is in Sanskrit], northern and southern.

Also read: Ramayana Has Many Poems, Many Versions and Many Colours

The most ancient instance of the word “Ram” occurs in the Yajurveda 29:59 [NOTE: The word ‘rāma’ in this verse refers to a pair of bulls with specific qualities in connection with the fire-god Agni and the sun-god Savitṛ]. Tulsidas, poet of the Ramcaritmanas, has also taken the story of Ram to be in accordance with the Veda and thus sees the Ramayana as part of the Vedic tradition.

Of course, there is no doubt about the fact that Tulsi’s own faith in Ram was so unshakeable that his voice became transcendent, i.e., his Manas transcends all poetic traditions, whether scriptural, epic or literary. His poem seems to come from knowledge that is pre-conscious and pre-linguistic, a transcendental awareness that precedes conscious thought, language and speech.

[NOTE: These sentences refer to parā, paśyanti, madhyamā and vaikharī, the four levels of vāk (speech) theorised by the classical philosopher Bhartṛhari. In describing Tulsi’s voice as “parāyaṇī” the author is attributing to him a creative power above and beyond language itself, the capacity for absolute poetry].

Tulsidas. Photo: snl.no. Public domain.

This must be the reason that the authoritative literary critic of modern Hindi letters, Pandit Ram Chandra Shukla, has, in his History of Hindi Literature accorded to Tulsidas’s oeuvre the most important place in the entire history of Hindi literary culture.

Tulsidas began to compose the Ramcaritmanas in Ayodhya in Samvat 1631 (1574 CE) and completed his epic in two years and seven months. It’s likely that some of it was written in Kashi (Varanasi).

According to Professor R.C. Shukla, those who are familiar with Tulsi’s languages (mainly Awadhi and Braj Bhasha) can tell from his vocabulary that there are words that are local specifically to Chitrakut and Ayodhya, and not known widely elsewhere.

The great critic opines that the most notable feature of Tulsi’s faith is its all-encompassing nature – it doesn’t neglect any aspect of life, it does not exclude anything, nor does it choose one side over the other. Many lines converge and are integrated within the poem. Thus deeds (karma) and norms (dharma), action (karma) and knowledge (gyaan), all these oppositions are reconciled.

According to the critic Professor Shukla: “In his Ramcaritmanas, the great poet has taken devotion and faith to be much more efficacious and rewarding than knowledge as means to our desired ends. We find in his Manas creative skill, structural coherence, aesthetic weight and so on – every exemplary literary quality is present therein.

“But the real point to note is that all the defining elements of a narrative poem are both equally included and perfectly balanced. Moreover, there is a recognition on the poet’s part of the crucial trigger-points in the story (and these are used most effectively). Further, the language is always appropriate to its context within the narrative.”

In Shukla’s view, Tulsidas also knows full well where he needs to deploy learned idioms for erudite audiences and where the occasion demands everyday speech. He has mastered how to work the erotic potential (śringār rasa) of his story in such a way as to adhere to the highest moral standards.

His devotion to Ram isn’t limited to serving his own interest or advertising his personal faith. Rather, he wishes for the greater common good, looking out for all his readers and fellow devotees.

By Tulsi’s time and thereafter, Ram, as the very embodiment of the highest virtue (maryādā purushottam), became a people’s god, widely revered. Valmiki was the first to have a vision of Ram, to render him in poetry, to establish him as the universal ideal of mankind. But it was Tulsi who really took him to the masses, gave him such pride of place in popular belief.

Also read | Ayodhya: How Would Tulsidas Take Stock of the Day After?

It was thanks to the epic poets ancient and medieval, Valmiki and Tulsidas, that the story of Ram spread gradually all over the subcontinent and even beyond it, all across the world.

Still, sometimes the poet does use an esoteric vocabulary. By ‘esoteric’ (rahasya-parak) we mean a kind of language that lets the reader know that she isn’t exactly understanding something, but what it is that she is not understanding, that she doesn’t know. There’s a wonderful example of this in Tulsidas’s Vinay Patrika (v. 111):

केशव, कहि न जाइ का कहिए।

देखत तव रचना बिचित्र हरि! समुझि मनहिं मन रहिए।।१।।

सून्य भीत पर चित्र, रंग नहिं, तनु बिनु लिखा चितेरे।

धोये मिटइ न मरइ भीति, दुःख पाइय एहि तनु हेरे।।२।।

रवि-कर नीर बसै अति दारुन, मकर रूप तेहि माहीं।

बदनहीन सो ग्रसै चराचर, पान करन जे जाहीं ।।३।।

कोउ कह सत्य, झूठ कह कोऊ, जुगल प्रबल कोउ मानै।

तुलसिदास परिहरै तीन भ्रम, सो आपन पहिचानै ।।४।।

केशव, कहि न जाइ का कहिए।

देखत तव रचना बिचित्र हरि! समुझि मनहिं मन रहिए।।१।।

O Keśava! I’m struck dumb.

For what could I possibly say?

O Hari, I behold your amazing creation

Whatever I understand of it

Subsides unuttered in my mind.

सून्य भीत पर चित्र, रंग नहिं, तनु बिनु लिखा चितेरे।

धोये मिटइ न मरइ भीति, दुःख पाइय एहि तनु हेरे।।२।।

A bodiless painter has drawn

A picture without colours

On the wall of the void.

All the washing cannot wipe it off

Yet mortal fear of its erasure consumes me

And I suffer, so viscerally!

रवि-कर नीर बसै अति दारुन, मकर रूप तेहि माहीं।

बदनहीन सो ग्रसै चराचर, पान करन जे जाहीं ।।३।।

The sun’s rays conjure

A mirage of water

In it lurks a fearsome form:

A crocodile.

The beast has no jaws

Yet it devours moving and fixed alike

Pouncing on thirsty creatures

Gone there to drink.

कोउ कह सत्य, झूठ कह कोऊ, जुगल प्रबल कोउ मानै।

तुलसिदास परिहरै तीन भ्रम, सो आपन पहिचानै ।।४।।

Some say it is real

Others that it is unreal

Yet others hold that it’s both.

Says Tulsi:

Shed the three delusions!


Only the Self.

Faith is an overarching framework, a supreme vision. But it also suggests a kind of blindness. It’s when we cannot see how the world makes sense, when rationality fails to help us understand the vagaries of life, that we turn to faith.

Driven by our bewilderment in the face of reality, we begin to chant Ram’s name. This repetition of the name is intoxicating, spell-binding. It lulls us into forgetting both our troubles and ourselves. Perhaps it is to fill the vacuum created by forgetfulness that Ram appears. We have to make room to welcome Ram into our life – and that is the space vacated by our ego.

While we need Ram to comfort and anchor us, to lodge in our heart and assuage the suffering occasioned by our human condition, a brilliant maverick poet like Kabir saw through the kind of faith that can be divisive, that makes believers overly attached to certain symbols, structures and rituals, and turns them against the followers of other faiths.

Kabir’s Ram had no form, no story and no avatar; he needed no temple, no idol and no worship. For Kabir, Ram was an abstract principle.

Also read: Kabir in His Time, And Ours


(Note from Ananya Vajpeyi: In some places the paragraphs have been rearranged for greater coherence and flow. For the most part the translation hews close to the original so far as possible – my father’s naturally poetic idiom and his resonant language laden with imagery are not easy to bring into flat prose, quite apart from the difficulty of moving from Hindi to English.

Thanks to Manish Pushkale who alerted me to the unexpected and disconcerting republication of my father’s original article in the Hindustan newspaper, as part of a special supplement to mark the ceremonies which took place in the Ram Temple at Ayodhya on January 22, 2024.

Thanks to Keerthik Sasidharan who made the Hindi text available to me and encouraged me to translate it. I’m grateful to Philip Lutgendorf and Akhilesh Mani Shandilya with whom I, along with my colleagues, was able to discuss Tulsidas in the winter of 2023-24, and to Linda Hess and Purushottam Agrawal from whom I keep on learning about Kabir).

Kailash Vajpeyi (1936-2015) was a poet, scholar, broadcaster and public intellectual who wrote extensively in Hindi and English. He received many literary awards and his work is translated into many languages.

Ananya Vajpeyi is a writer and scholar based at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

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