Friday, 1 July 2011

“my particular hell only in my hindu mind” : TREATMENT OF HINDU MYTHS AND LEGENDS IN A.K. RAMANUJAN’S POETRY

Dr. Pallavi Srivastava
Guest Lecturer, English Department,
C.M.P.Degree College,
University of Allahabad.

      Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan (1929–1993) occupies a prominent position in Indian English poetry due to his intellectual stamina, his ineluctable language and ability to depict the inner struggle. The noted English critic William Walsh in his scholarly introduction to Readings in Commonwealth Literature (1973), states that the ‘highest achievement’ of Indian writing in English is in fiction, in the works of Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao, but the future, the promise, lies in poetry, in the works of Ezekiel, A.K. Ramanujan and Parthasarathy.1 Ramanujan exiled himself in the United States but his voluntary exile could not cut him from his immediate native environment and roots. Ramanujan himself describes the factors that contributed to the forming of his sensibility:
English and my disciplines (linguistics, anthropology) give me my ‘outer’ forms – linguistic, metrical, logical and other such ways of shaping experience; and my first thirty years in India, my frequent visits and field-trips, my personal and professional pre-occupations with Kannada, Tamil, the classics and folklore give me my substance, my ‘inner’ forms, images and symbols. They are continuous with each other and I no longer can tell what comes from where. 2
      Although his translations have created a vogue for the study and propagation of Kannada and Tamil in the West, it is his poetry which bears the unmistakable marks of his extraordinary genius. He has published four volumes of poetry to date: The Striders (1966), Relations: Poems (1971), Second Sight (1986) and The Black Hen (1995), a posthumous publication. Ramanujan is determined to seek his identity in India’s past – “I must seek and will find my particular hell only, in my Hindu mind” (CP, p. 34). His ‘particular hell’ is our common heritage. His sense of history and his projection of individual experience as a part of a social milieu are astonishing indeed. R. Parthasarathy praises his poetry as a “product of a specific culture” and points out that his real greatness lies in his ability to translate this experience “into the terms of another culture.” 3 His interests centre round folklore, anthropology, structuralism and biculturalism. Before him ancient Indian literature was considered to be mainly Sanskritic and it is his pioneering translations of ancient Tamil poetry into modern English that altered perceptions of the Indian literary map in the West. One can easily confront with Hindu myths and legends, gods and goddesses, customs and rituals in his poems. In fact, he has brilliantly and poetically fused the experiences of the outer world with the responses of the inner world. He has combined the powerful ancient myths and legends with the ironic skeptical view of actual life.
      In both collections of verse The Striders and Relations, we find Ramanujan quite desirous to discover his roots and the manifestation of this desire in a variety of ways strengthens his poetry. His second volume of verse, Relations is richer in mythical content and narration. The poem “One, Two, May be Three Arguments against Suicide” puts forward its logic against the act of committing suicide by a person. It is in the third part of the poem that the suggestion is made that desire is ‘endless’ and that a person prone to suicide must keep himself calm and burn all his desires, including the desire of Kama (passion). In fact, the poem directly mentions Kamasutra, the Treatise of Love and the legend of burning Kamadeva, the God of Love and Passion by Lord Shiva. It is Ramanujan’s superb mastery that he has introduced the ancient Hindu myth in barely seven lines:
Remember what the wise callous hindus
said when the love-god burned: keep your cool,
make for love’s sake no noble gesture.
All symbol, no limbs, a nobody all soul,
O Kama, only you can have no use
for the Kamasutra.
                                             Ashes have no posture. 4                                         
Kamadeva’s daring attempt to stir passion in during Lord Shiva’s deep meditation causes him punishment. Afterwards, the heavenly wedlock of Lord Shiva and Parvati results in the birth to Kartikeya, the War God who eventually slays Tarakasura in a fierce battle. Thus, Ramanujan has marvellously intertwined the Kamadeva-Shiva myth with the Parvati-Shiva myth and thereby emphasised the futility of ‘desire or passion’.
      The poem “Compensations” also takes us to the Shiva myth though in a different context. The poet refers to the disastrous Tandava dance of Lord Shiva on the Doomsday, indicating the inevitable deluge of the entire creation. The poet watches the speeding motion of watch thus:
surpassed only by the last
miracle of grace, the three-eyed
whirlwind of arms, dancing on
a single leg though he can dance
on many, kind returning god
of Indian deluges, 5                                                                       
According to Hindu mythology, the Lord Shiva performs the destructive dance when the dooms day is about to come. The Hindus believe that after the deluge caused by the Lord Shiva, the Lord Brahma, the creator of the Universe, reconstructs and reinvigorates the entire creation of the universe in order to start a new era.
      Another poem “Prayers to Lord Murugan” is composed on the Dravidian god Murugan. Murugan is defined as the ancient Dravidian god of fertility, joy, youth, beauty, war and love, represented as a six-faced god with twelve hands. Murugan occupies an important place in the life of South India in its folklore and mythology. The Lord has been treated with considerable length in eleven stanzas of the poem. The poem has an element of aphoristic wisdom of the vacanakaras. It is the intelligent use of folklore with an ironic awareness of the modern situation that lends the poem its distinctions.
      Ramanujan’s next volume Second Sight abounds in Hindu myths and legends, god and goddesses. The volume opens with the poem “No Amnesiac King”, mentioning the well-known legend of Raja Dushyanta and forest beauty Shakuntala, the adopted daughter of Kanva Rishi. The story is marvellously narrated by the celebrated Sanskrit poet-dramatist, Kalidasa in his famous work Abhijnan-Shakuntalam. The story narrates an act of crime on the part of the king Dushyanta for not remembering all about his beloved Shakuntala whom he meets and falls in love in the ashram of the sage Kanva and with whom he enters into a fruitful union after Gandharava marriage in the thick part of a forest. The cause of the King’s absented-mindedness is the curse given by Durvasa rishi to Shakuntala who ignores his presence at her door. Consequently the King does not recognize Shakuntala in his court. Her ruffled condition does not move the amnesiac King as she loses the wedding ring gifted to her by the King while she is bathing in a river. A fish engulfs the ring. The fish is later caught by a fisherman and sent to the royal cook who cuts it open and finds the ring. The ring is restored to the King that causes the recovery of the king of all his lost memory as well as the repentance. This ancient tale retold by Ramanujan is worth noting:
the one well-timed memorable fish,
so one can cut straight with the royal knife
to the ring waiting in the belly,
and recover at one stroke all lost memory  6                              
      The next poem “A Minor Sacrifice” relates the old story of Raja Parikshit and his son Janmejaya who vows vengeance and performs a sacrifice:
         that draws every snake from everywhere,
         till snakes of every stripe
               begin to fall
               through the blazing air
               into his altar fires. 7                                                                    
Under the terrible grip of Kaliyuga, Raja Parikshit kills a snake while on a hunting spree and for mere fun places it around a sage’s neck and thereby, invites rishi’s anathema in wrath of an early death of the king by snakebite. The King’s son, Janmejaya performs the snake holocaust to avenge the snakes. Such is the overpowering effect of the magic that draws every snake leapt into the altar of sacrificial fire and got burnt. But, unfortunately, amongst them, a poisonous snake Takshak remains stuck to the leg of Lord Indra’s throne. When mantras recited by the sages and pundits begin to shake Lord Indra’s throne, the Lord advises Takshak to assume the shape of an ogre-dressed Brahmin. By doing so, Takshak changes his shape and comes to the site of the magic rite. When the sages and pundits see through their intuitive insight that there is no snake left in the universe, they end their so-called ‘minor sacrifice’.        
      In Second Sight, the poem “Zoo Gardens Revisited” makes a mournful commentary on the lack of warmth and sympathy in humanity at large for the innocent creatures. The poet invokes various Hindu gods to protect them and alludes to various incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The paragraph of this prose poem deserves to be quoted:
                 Lord of lion face, boar snout, and fish eyes, killer of killer
                 cranes, shepherd of rampant elephants, devour my lambs,
                 devour them whole, save them in the zoo garden ask of your
           belly. 8                                                                                         
The phrase “Lord of lion face” indicates to the incarnation in which Lord Vishnu assumes the shape of Half-man and Half-lion. The Lord is the deliverer of the world from tyrannical clutches of Hiranyakashyapu, the father of Prahlad, a great devotee of Lord Vishnu, “boar snout” indicates to the Lord’s assuming the shape of Varaha, who saves the stolen earth from the clutches of the demon thief by lifting it from waters of the deep. The succeeding incarnation of Lord Vishnu is of Matsya – “fish eyes” that takes place to save Manu, the progenitor of the human race from a great deluge. While referring to another phrase “shepherd of rampant elephants”, the poet recalls an Indian myth, according to which, the Lord Vishnu rescues Gajendra from the jaws of a mighty crocodile. Hindu mythology also mentions the Lord Vishnu’s incarnation of Kurma, the tortoise. By sitting on the back of it, the Lord recollects some lost but valuable things during the deluge. All the same, during the churning of ocean, the same Kurma’s back has been utilized by the Gods as an oscillating shaft of the mountain Mandra, in a tug of war between gods and demons. The poem also refers to the incarnation of Lord Vishnu as Kalki, the white horse who makes the purgation of the world possible. The expression “zoo garden ark of your belly” alludes to the Biblical story, telling the humble effort of the God to save the creation. He saves two of every kind of creatures in Noah’s ark at the most crucial time of destruction. The poet attempts to harmonise both mythologies, Eastern and Western and thus transcends the local for the universal and the familiar for the mythical.
      In the poem “The Difference”, the poet illustrates the Hindu myth of Lord Vishnu assuming the shape of “the Dark One” – i.e., the Vaman God. According to the tale told in the myth, the Lord Vishnu appears before the king Moradhavaj in order to examine his world–renowned liberal and generous nature. In his alms, the Lord demands mere three steps of earth. The Lord measures the entire region of earth in the second and the entire region of underworld in the third step though this is not mentioned herein. But the plight of the king is not over as the lion, the chariot of the Lord is terribly hungry. The Lord asks the king to feed the lion the fresh flesh of his only son by slashing him into two halves but without any sign of lamentation. The king and his wife ultimately decide to move the saw over the head of their lovely son closing their eyes completely. But the Lord shows His true mettle and catches hold of the hands of the king and his wife. The Lord blesses them with everlasting fame and glory.          
      The last paragraph of the poem “Moulting” is also mentionable as the poet invokes Garuda, the Lord of snakes and eagles in order to obtain the blessings for the security of his lovely son:
Lord of snakes and eagles, and everything in between, cover
my son with an hour’s shade and be the thorn at a suitable height
in his hour of change. 9                                                              
      In Ramanujan’s last volume of poetry, The Black Hen, one can clearly discern the memorable illustrations of various Hindu gods and goddesses. The poem “A Devotee’s Complaint” is quite religious or instructive mentioning the three Hindu deities – Lakshmi, Saraswati and Shiva and the way of worshipping them:
             Try to curry favor
             with Lakshmi,
             you lose an eye-tooth.
             Saraswati, she slaps you hard
             and where her fingers touch
             your cheek, you’ve no hair
             ….       …..      …..       …..
             If Siva touches you –
             when you cut your finger
             in the kitchen
             not blood but ash spills
             from your cut as it did
             for that ascetic
             who dried out for Siva. 10                                                            
      The poem “No Fifth Man” is based on a Sanskrit parable from Vishnusharma’s celebrated Panchatantra. The poem is an illustration of the foolishness of four learned but egoistic Brahmins who know the miraculous Sanjivini Vidya that breathes life into dead creatures. According to the parable, five Brahmins “go abroad to learn / all the sixty-four arts” (CP, p. 243) mentioned in Sh stras. Afterwards, when they meet in the woods, there creates a stir “to show off” their learning. The first man picks up a bone randomly and by blowing syllable or mantras on it, he produces “a tiger’s skeleton” there. At this the second man endows it with “liver, lungs, arteries / inferior and superior” (p. 243), paws and claws and veins and a gender. The third man provides it “the pelt of stripes / and gold” (CP, p. 244) while the fourth Brahmin breathes the most precious life into its structure. The fifth Brahmin is ignoramus and unlettered and climbs up a tree hurriedly in fear. After coming into full life the tigress pounces upon the four talented Brahmins standing before it and swallows them up. The poet equates the making of a poem with Sanjivini Vidya and reflects his own thoughts about writing poetry which once done takes hold of the creator.
     Further Ramanujan’s deep love of the Hindu myths and legends and folktales culminate in the three mythology poems – “Mythologies I, II, and III”. The first two mythology poems are remarkable for their juxtaposition of the reality of the myth with the fact of the poet’s self. Using a myth, related with the past, Ramanujan has showed the continuity of his own self from the past to the present. All the same, in these poems, he tries to incorporate some sort of prayer motif as that of a true devout Hindu at the last stage of his life. These poems evince the sense of death and not the fear of death unmistakably but the most implicit thing that is evident in the prayer motif is the willingness to have a union with the divine. In “Mythologies I”, the poet revokes the myth of Krishna and Pootna. The myth relates the story of the notorious king of Mathura and the uncle of Lord Krishna, Kansa who was a cruel king and about him it was prophesied that he would be killed by the eighth son of Devaki, Kansa’s sister. With the intention of killing the baby, Kansa sends Pootna, the she demon to Gokul, the abode of Yashoda where Lord Krishna was then being reared under her motherhood, to feed the baby from her poison-coated nipple to kill him. The poet’s precise depiction of the myth is remarkable:
The child took her breast
in his mouth and sucked it right out of her chest. 
Her carcass stretched from north to south.
She changed, undone by grace,
from deadly mother to happy demon,
found life in death. 11                                                                      
      In “Mythologies II”, the poet highlights the myth of Lord Vishnu, the slayer of the tyrannical king Hiranyakashyapu, the atheist father of Prahlad, a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu. The poem sketches graphically “the perfect boon” obtained by the king:
      not to be slain by demon, god, or by
      beast, not by day nor by night,
      by no manufactured weapon, not out
      of doors nor inside, not in the sky
      nor on earth, 12                                                                             
However, when the torturous behaviour to Prahlad reaches its culmination, Lord Vishnu, assuming the shape of Narisingh, a half-man – half-lion, appears from the concrete pillar of the palace to prove his omnipresence and to protect the staunch faith of his devotee, Prahlad. The Lord tears off the king, keeping him on his knees at threshold with his “bare claws” at twilight.
      “One More on a Deathless Theme” is yet another poem in which the poet refers to the Ardhanarishwar concept of Hindu mythology. Lord Shiva accepts His consort Parvati as one half of His body and hence the Hindu concept of Ardhanarishwar points to an image of the Lord Shiva as half-man and half-woman.
      Thus by making superb use of myths and folklore as themes in his poetry, Ramanujan has revived old forgotten myths and legends in his poetry. His poetry very aptly conforms to the norm of post-colonial literature as he has successfully converted his expatriate condition and post-colonial situation to his advantage and brings the image of India alive in his poetry.


1.        Walsh, William. “Introduction”, Readings in Commonwealth Literature (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1973), p. xviii.
2.        Parthasarathy, R. (ed.) Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1976), p.96.
3.        Ibid., p.95.
4.        Ramanujan, A. K. The Collected Poems (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000, including the unpublished The Black Hen), p.72.
5.        Ibid., p.110.                    
6.        Ibid., p.126.            
7.        Ibid., p. 144.                                                                                              
8.        Ibid., p. 154.                                                                                    
9.        Ibid., p. 176.
10.     Ibid., p. 237.
11.     Ibid., p. 221.
12.     Ibid., p. 226.

Dr. Pallavi Srivastava
Guest Lecturer, English Department,
C.M.P.Degree College,
University of Allahabad,
8H/10, Shivkuti,Allahabad,211004.
Ph. – 9839036991, 9307638385.