Tulsidas’ version of the Ramayana has become a lightning rod for political controversy in the Hindi belt. Criticised for being anti-Dalit and misogynist by members of the opposition, this controversy over BJP’s surefire vote winner poses an unexpected challenge.
Researched by: Sara Varghese & Priyanka Gulati
Remind me, what’s the Ramcharitmanas?
The basic deets: Until Tulsidas came along in the 16th century, the original Ramayana was only available in Sanskrit—written by Valmiki somewhere between the fifth and first century BCE. Ramcharitmanas re-narrates the story of Valmiki’s Ramayana in Awadhi—tracing Rama’s journey from birth to the throne of Ayodhya. Divided into seven sections (kand), the epic poem consists of 12,800 lines divided into 1,073 stanzas.
About Tulsidas: He was a brahmin named Ram Bola Dubey—who was born in Rajapur in present-day Uttar Pradesh. After renouncing the world, he supposedly began writing the Ramcharitmanas on Ram Navami in 1574 in Ayodhya. FYI, the oldest complete manuscript of the Manas is dated 1647.
Why it matters: The Ramcharitmanas finally made the Ramayana accessible to the ordinary person. Legend has it that Shiva and Parvati appeared to Tulsidas in a dream—asking him to write the Ramayana in the spoken language of the masses. In the Hindi heartland, the Ramayana actually means the Ramcharitmanas—undoubtedly to the annoyance of Hindus elsewhere in the country. Gandhi-ji called it the “greatest book in all devotional literature.” It is certainly the most popular. Just one printing press has sold almost 70 million copies of the Ramcharitmanas.
[I]t would not be an exaggeration to say that because of the phenomenal popularity of the Ramcharitmanas, Tulsi single-handedly made Ram – the subject of his devotional ardour – the greatest object of personal veneration in the popular mindset.
Ok, so what’s the big controversy…
Shots fired: It all started on January 11, when Bihar’s education minister Chandra Shekhar quoted these lines from the Ramcharitmanas:
Why was Ramcharitmanas resisted and which part was resisted? Lower caste people were not allowed to access education and it is said in the Ramcharitmanas that lower caste people become poisonous by getting an education as a snake becomes after drinking milk.
He claimed religious texts like Manusmriti, Ramcharitmanas, and RSS icon Guru Gowalkar’s book ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ spread “hatred.” While the BJP promptly accused him of ‘appeasement’ politics, an Ayodhya seer went much further:
He should be sacked from the post of minister within a week. And he should apologise, if this does not happen, then I declare a reward of Rs 10 crore, to the one who will chop off the tongue of Bihar’s Education Minister Chandra Shekhar.
Yup, things escalated pretty fast.
Enter Prasad Maurya: About a week later, Swami Prasad Maurya—a prominent Samajwadi Party leader and BJP defector in Uttar Pradesh—added fuel to fire, telling a TV channel:
Koi crore log isko nahi padhte. Sab bakwas hai. Yeh Tulsidas ne apni prashansa aur khushi ke liye likha hai. Dharm ho, hum uska swagat karte hain. Par dharm ke naam par gaali kyun? Kya gaali dena dharm hai? (It is a lie that crores of people have read [the Ramcharitmanas]. It’s all nonsense. It was written by Tulsidas to make himself feel important and make himself happy. We welcome religion. But why abuse in the name of religion?… Is it part of the faith to abuse others?)
Maurya focused his ire on this line from the epic: “dhol, gavaar, shudra, pashu, naari, sakal tadhna ke adhikari”—which loosely translated means that drums, illiterates, backward castes, animals, and women are all worthy of a beating. (FYI: some recent translations read tadhna as ‘education’—not ‘beating’.)
The battle escalates: Maurya found support from Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Caste groups. Giant posters declaring 'garva se kaho hum shudra hain' (say with pride that we are shudra) popped up in Lucknow. And on January 29, some groups burned photocopied pages from the Ramcharitmanas. Five men who participated in the protest were arrested—and two of them were charged under anti-terrorism laws. An FIR has been filed against Maurya—but he remains at large—and the BJP has filed cases against Chandra Shekhar in Bihar. But Maurya has doubled down by sending an open letter to the Prime Minister and President—demanding that objectionable parts be excised from the Ramcharitmanas.
An unexpected RSS response: As the political temperature rose in the Hindi belt, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat offered a rare comment on caste at a public meeting:
I (God) am in all beings. Whatever be the name or colour, all have the same ability, same respect. All are my own. No one is superior or inferior… Based on scriptures, what the pandits say is a lie. By getting entangled in this imagination of superior and inferior castes, we have lost our way. This delusion has to be done away with.
The RSS hastily clarified that the word ‘pandits’ referred to ‘intellectuals’ not brahmins—lest anyone mistake it for an anti-upper caste remark. FYI: this is not the first time that the RSS has called for the abolition of caste—with the aim of forging a unified ‘Hindu’ identity—and to call for an end to caste-based reservations.
So is Ramcharitmanas really anti-Dalit?
It depends who you speak to. Let’s start with the defence of Ramcharitmanas.
One: These lines have been taken out of context. They do not represent views of Tulsidas but that of characters in the epic. Also this: “To take one line or two from such an epic—which could well be later interpolations—to malign the entire Ramcharitmanas is an act of unforgivable hubris.”
Two: Tulsidas was a product of his times. Since he had no interest in being a social reformer, he therefore upheld the status quo. But that in no way takes away from the great significance and value of his epic.
Three: Tulsidas’ Rama is nirguna—cosmic consciousness without attributes—and therefore present in all living creatures. Supporters like author Pavan Varma and Yogi Adityanath also cite a passage that describes Rama’s encounter with Shabari—a forest dwelling woman and great devotee:
During his meeting with Shabari, Ram explains to Lakshman: “Jaatipaati kula dharma badaii, dhanabalaparijanagunachaturai, bhagatiheennarasohaikaisa, binujalabaridadekhiyejaisa” (Despite caste, kinship, lineage, dharma, position, wealth, strength, accomplishments and family, a man lacking in devotion is of no more worth than a cloud without water.)
Four: Author Devdutt Pattanaik points to these lines in the Ramcharitmanas: ‘Nar, napunsak, nari, va jiva, chara-char koi; sarva bhav bhaj kapat taji, mohe param priya soi.’ (‘Men, queers, women, even plants and animals, all living creatures who abandon malice and approach me with affection are dear to me.’). He claims that the much-quoted ‘drum’ couplet is used as an ideological ruse:
Most curiously, both Leftists and Rightists insist that the verse that celebrates hierarchy defines Hinduism – Leftists criticise this, Rightists defend it. Neither really wants to acknowledge the wisdom of Hinduism, for that will take the wind out of each other’s politics. So neither quotes, or is even aware of, the latter verse. This selective understanding of the faith by elites as well as goons, on both sides, who control social discourse is the tragedy of Hinduism.
The main takeaway: Ramcharitmanas is a text of immense spiritual and societal value. But as with all sacred texts, it has its shortcomings—which cannot be used to dismiss Tulsidas or his creation in entirety.
Ok, what do the critics say to that?
None of what Maurya or Chandra Shekhar said is new. The Ramayana has long been called out by Dalit intellectuals—be it Valmiki’s original epic in Sanskrit or Tulsidas’s Awadhi version.
A history of Dalit critique: According to one of the founding fathers of Dravidian politics—E V Ramasamy Periyar—the Ramayana aims to ‘brainwash’ Dravidians and lower castes. In this worldview, there is no difference between ‘brahmin’ and North Indian:
Although EVR surveys many other incidents in the epic, castigating Rama for everything from meat-eating to killing females, the trend of his critique is already clear. For EVR, Rama personifies “North Indian values” and is accordingly identified with North Indian dominance of lower castes and women. Equally pernicious, according to EVR, is the attempt by Brahmins to put forth this vicious and immoral person as virtuous and even divine.
As for BR Ambedkar, one of the 22 pledges taken by his followers while embracing Buddhism declared: “I shall have no faith in Rama and Krishna, who are believed to be incarnations of God, nor shall I worship them.”
The bahujan movement: Grassroots Dalit writers “fuelled and nourished” the Bahujan Samaj Party’s politics—driving the rise of Mayawati. They helped popularise the anti-Brahmin worldview across North India—including scathing critiques of the Ramayana:
Exact figures are not available but from all accounts, these works (mostly booklets), cassettes and CDs, have sold in the thousands. In 1980, Akela hawked his first work, an eight-page pamphlet provocatively titled Ram Rajya Ki Nangi Tasveer, for 60 paise each at village fairs and kasbah bazaars. “The buyers were mostly Jatavs like me. Some paid Re 1, others Rs 5, a fantastic amount then, only to encourage me,” remembers Akela. That they were reading something written by one of them was a warm but barely conceivable feeling for many.
In other words, calling out Tulsidas’ epic is hardly new or noteworthy for Dalit communities in the north.
The present-day critique: of the Ramayana remains pretty much the same: it is irredeemably casteist—and there is no dearth of evidence of its contempt for the lower castes. As Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd writes:
In the Ramayana, Shambuka was killed because he was Shudra. In the Mahabharata, Karna was not allowed to participate in Draupadi’s Swayamvara because he was a Shudra and Ekalavya was not allowed to learn archery because he was an Adivasi. More than anything, these sacred books say nothing about who was growing the food, grazing the animals and building the palaces that the authors described in those texts. Were they not Shudras/Dalits and Adivasis? How is it that they are not talked about?
But, but, but: Here’s what’s new about Maurya’s salvo on Tulsidas. Where previous critiques focused on Dalits, he has broadened the term to include all marginalised groups—making it an attractive political weapon for the Samajwadi Party:
The root of this is in how Maurya defined the term ‘shudra’, which in ancient texts refers to the ‘lowest’ of the four varnas or castes. Historically, Dalits have sometimes been classified as being outside this fourfold division or belonging to a fifth (‘panchama’) varna. Maurya, however, has used a more expansive definition, with the ‘shudra’ identity encompassing all the ‘lower’ castes, from the Dalits to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and even the Scheduled Tribes (STs).
Maurya claims that the term shudra encompasses 97% of Indians—“Half of the entire population is women and in the remaining fall Dalits, adivasis and backwards.”
And this is why the BJP is worried?
‘Worried’ is a strong word. It would be more accurate to say the controversy puts them in an uncomfortable position. Let’s start with the electoral math in UP—which is a must-win state to prevail in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Counting the votes: Professor Ashutosh Varshney broadly breaks up the voting blocs in Uttar Pradesh in the following way:
Basically, it is a 20-20-20-40 state: 20% upper caste, 20% Dalit, 20% Muslim and 40% OBC. Some communities are a bit smaller (Muslims, for example, are 19.2% of the state), others slightly larger (Dalits are roughly 21%), and the upper caste and OBC figures are sample-based estimates. But, overall, the 20-20-20-40 division is a good starting point for political analysis.
Now, the Dalit vote is itself divided between jatavs—who typically vote for Mayawati—and non-jatavs—who are a core part of the BJP base. The Samajwadi party is using the ‘shudra’ narrative to woo jatavs away from BSP—and speak to the Most Backward Castes—who constitute 21.30% of UP’s population. (This also explains why Mayawati aimed her firepower at both Akhilesh Yadav and the BJP.)
Reign of the thakurs: Yogi Adityanath’s upper caste bias is perhaps his one Achilles heel. His rivals did their best to frame him as a saffron-robed thakur in the last election—but with little success. But as experts acknowledge, any narrative that shifts the focus from religion to caste is bad news for the BJP:
The Hindu-Muslim narrative had become a bit of an overkill and as Akhilesh said, if Samajwadi and Ambedkarites could come together, we could be in for a surprise.
Until now, Akhilesh Yadav has been busy chasing brahmin votes—to zero effect. The ‘shudra’ narrative may signal a shift that poses a greater threat.
Point to note: Adityanath ‘purified’ the Chief Minister’s residence with cow urine after it was vacated by Akhilesh Yadav—who never called him out at the time. But this time around, Yadav directly confronted Adityanath: “I am going to ask CM Yogi, Am I Shudra or not?”—demanding he recite and explain the offending Ramcharitmanas couplets in the Assembly.
The Mughal problem: Until now, the Ramayana and Rama have been the BJP’s greatest asset in the Hindi belt. Its leaders were able to gloss over the inconvenient upper caste hue of its Ram Mandir politics with the H-card. Yogi Adityanath famously claimed Hanuman comes from the “vanwasi” (forest dwellers), “vanchit” (deprived) and “Dalit” communities. The logic: just as the vanars, Dalits should “join the Hindutva fold, which is fighting for the restoration of the values of ‘Ram Rajya’.”
But Tulsidas poses a tricky problem for the BJP. As Dalit writers have pointed out, he doesn’t have a single bad word for the party’s favourite bogeyman:
In the whole of Tulsidas’s 16th-century retelling of the Ramayana, there isn’t a single line that criticises – even by allegory – the Mughal emperor Akbar for the effect of his rule on the poor and downtrodden… In Tulsidas’s time, Birbal, a Brahmin and Todar Mal, a Kayastha, were among Akbar’s top administrators. When the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi peasantry was expanding agricultural land, the emperor’s administration was imposing backbreaking land rents on them.
Despite the BJP’s claims, there is also evidence that Tulsidas himself had the approval of the emperor. All of which creates an odd situation where Tulsidas—the cultural flag-bearer of the Ramayana—is at odds with one of BJP’s most important voting blocs.
The bottomline: There is no value in censoring any version of the Ramayana—however offensive—in a democracy. We leave you instead with this lovely story—narrated in AK Ramanujan's essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’. It reminds us that for every Rama there is a Ramayana:
Hanuman goes to the netherworld to pick up the ring that has accidentally fallen off Rama's finger. There, the King of Spirits offers thousands of identical rings on a platter and asks him to pick “your” Rama's ring. Hanuman is confused, at which point the King says: “There have been as many Ramas as there are rings on this platter. When you return to earth you will not find Rama. This incarnation of Rama is now over. Whenever an incarnation of Rama is to be over, his ring falls down. I collect and keep them.”
FYI, Ramanujan’s essay was pulled from the Delhi University curriculum under pressure from Hindutva groups.
- BBC News and Indian Express (paywall) offer a solid overview of the controversy.
- Pavan Varma is a passionate supporter of the Ramcharitmanas—and has written a book in its praise. Read an excerpt over at Scroll—or Varma’s op-ed on the recent brouhaha.
- Devdutt Pattanaik offers a sympathetic view—with a queer lens.
- Also in Scroll: the Hindutva campaign to establish one true Ramayana.
- We explained the complicated electoral maths in UP in this Big Story—which you might find useful with the Lok Sabha elections looming in the horizon.
- The Print is best on why the Samajwadi Party has developed a sudden affection for the word ‘shudra’.
- For a scathing critique of Ramcharitmanas, read Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd in The Wire.
- Feminism in India lays out why the epic’s gender politics are abysmal.