Dr. S. Ramaratnam explains the relavance of the language

The Madras Sankrit College, Mylapore, in association with Hayagreeva Vidya Peetam, Taramani, Chennai, recently felicitated S. Ramaratnam, vice-chancellor, JK University, Odisha and former principal of RKM Vivekananda College, Chennai, for his service to the cause of Sanskrit for 50 years.

Also his book titled, ‘The Ritual Traditions of India,’ was released on the occasion. He talked about his experiences, the prevailing rituals and traditions and more in an interview. Excerpts…

With the mandatory happy ending, stock characters like the jester, a woman pining for love, and so on, where is the scope for realism in Sanskrit drama? How can you make Sanskrit plays appealing in modern times?

Many films and plays these days have comedy scenes and happy endings too. On the other hand, there are Sanskrit plays like Uttararamacharita, where there is no jester. If one observes closely, in Sanskrit drama, the woman does not pine for love. Shakuntala does not beg for love, she fights for justice. As the great Kashmiri rhetorician Anandavardhana has pointed out there is endless scope for representing emotions and Sanskrit dramatists have succeeded in delineating these emotions. There are also modern Sanskrit plays which are cast in the mode of ‘modern theatre.’ I am sure Sanskrit theatre will adapt itself to the tastes of the modern audience.

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in philosophical questions. So would it perhaps be a better idea to stage allegorical plays like Vedanta Desika’s ‘Sankalpa Suryodhayam’?

Certainly. In fact you have answered the previous question adequately through the present one. In the Bala Kanda, Valmiki talks of rasas present in the Ramayana, and says Lava and Kusa sang the Ramayana verses. In the Mahabharata we come across words like nata (actor) and kathaka (storyteller).

So was drama as such known at the time of the epics?

The epic references do indicate the presence of some kind of dramatic representation during those times. As we gather from Bharata’s Natyasastra, there was probably no exclusive dance or dramas during early times. It was a kind of a dance drama. The term natya in Bharata’s terminology refers to dance drama or a presentation dominated by dance with dialogue at appropriate places. It was called prekahsnaka.

What was the role of the epics in the development of Sanskrit theatre?

Bhasa’s ‘Pratimanataka’ and ‘Abhisekanataka’ are based on the Ramayana. Urubhanga, Madhyama Vyayoga and Kalidasa’s ‘Shaakuntala’ are inspired by the Mahabharata. ‘Uttararamacharita’ depicts the post-coronation story of Rama. ‘Venisamhara’ is the story of Panchali sabadham. Rukminin Devi presented the entire Ramayana in the dance drama format. The epics are perennial sources of not just drama, but a lot of Indian literature.

Are Sanskrit plays better read and enjoyed for their literary value, rather than staged?

The answer is both yes and no. Earlier Sanskrit plays were definitely meant for staging as we see from numerous stage directions given in the course of the play. But later plays such as Mahanataka were perhaps never staged. Uttararamacharita occupies the middle stage. It can be staged and also read and enjoyed. There are a number of short plays belonging to all ages in Sanskrit. They can still be staged. There are humorous one Act plays like Bhagavadajjukiya which are staged often even today. In any case, most of the existing plays have a high literary value.

You have authored a book on grhya (domestic) rituals. Isn’t there the danger that without an understanding of mantras, the performance of domestic rituals becomes mechanical?

The purpose of my book is to help the present generation understand the significance of rituals and the meaning of mantras. For example, during the jatakarma ritual the father prays : ‘May you be (strong like) a stone. May you be (as sharp as) an axe etc.’ Ritual or no ritual this is exactly what every parent wants for his child. Grhya rituals have both religious as well as secular values.

What do grhya sutras owe to the Vedas?

The Grhya sutras are part of the Vedic tradition. Even in the Rigveda we have hymns for both wedding and a funeral. There is no doubt that the rituals were observed during Vedic times. They were subsequently codified by the Grhya sutra writers. For most rituals Vedic hymns are recited. When suitable Vedic hymns were unavailable, the Grhya sutra writers composed appropriate hymns.

Isn’t the tying of mangalsutra of later origin than the grhya sutras?

Absolutely correct. Tying of the mangala sutra is not mentioned in any of the Grhyasutras. It probably originated from Tamil Nadu and spread to other regions.

Marrying the maternal uncle’s daughter was against the dharma sastra, but Vijnaneswara, author of Mitakshara, allowed it for South Indians. Doesn’t Vijnaneswara’s concession show that law givers interpreted rules rather flexibly?

Grhya sutra writers gave importance to local traditions, and laid down that when in doubt, the family practice was to prevail.

Law givers and commentators also accorded recognition to practices prevailing in their time. Thus Vijnaneswara recognised a custom that had already crept into the social system.

Bharuci is mentioned as one of the predecessors of Ramanuja, to have expounded Visishtadvaita. Was this the same Bharuci who was a writer on dharma sastras?

In all probability both are the same. The first reference to Bharuci is found in Mitakshara. He can be assigned to the ninth century but not earlier.

In his commentary on Vishnudharmasutra, Bharuci has explained a number of concepts on Vishnu which are fundamental to Visishtadvaita. Thus he can be called a predecessor to Ramanuja.

The Chandogya Upanishad and Brihaddaranyaka Upanishad talk of Itihasa-Purana. What are these texts talking about?

Itihasa definitely refers to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But regarding the Puranas there is difference of opinion. A number of Puranas are of later origin.

What is meant by Purana in the two leading Upanishads is ‘ancient lore’ in a general way. The Puranic stories were passed on from generation to generation through word of mouth. They were committed to writing much later.

Inspiring journey

Dr. S. Ramaratnam, former principal of Vivekananda College, and currently Vice Chancellor JK University, Odisha, has had an academic engagement with Sanskrit for 50 years. He has to his credit many books and over 50 scholarly articles in leading journals. He has been visiting Professor at Oxford University and has also presided over international conferences in Europe, Australia and USA.

At a function organised by Hayagreeva Vidyapeetam and Madras Sanskrit college, Ramaratnam’s book ‘The Ritual Traditions of India’, was released by former Advocate-General of Tamil Nadu K. Parasaran, who also conferred on him the title Natya Nataka Kala Pravinah. Ramaratnam was felicitated by V.S. Karunakarachariar, V.N. Venkatanathan, Dr. T.N. Aravamudhan, retired Principal Tiruvaiyaru Sanskrit college, and honorary secretary Hayagreeva Vidyapeetam and Dr. T.P Radhakrishnan, Principal, Madras Sanskrit College. All the speakers commended Ramaratnam’s research in Sanskrit, which is wide ranging.

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