The Sun and the Moon

The ethnic histories of Ram and Krishna

31 October, 2021

ALTHOUGH THE IDEA of the avatar does not appear in Vedic literature, there is a belief within Hinduism that there are ten incarnations of Vishnu. The first nine of these have appeared and Kalki, the final avatar, is expected at the end of Kaliyuga. The Ram and Krishna avatars of Vishnu are the most prominent because of the popularity of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Ramayana is the story of the legendary prince of Kosala and expounds Ram’s exile and his march towards Kishkinda to capture vanars, and later towards Lanka to seize Ravan. Eventually, Ram is coronated as king of Ayodhya to inaugurate the ideal form of state: Ram Rajya. The Mahabharata is the story of a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two groups of cousins, in which Krishna is presented as a canny strategist. He is a war hero, a counsellor to the Pandavas. His origin stories came later.

While Ram and Krishna are both avatars of the same deity, they come from different lineages and, I argue, represent contrasting ideologies. The Sangh Parivar has tended to be territorial about the figure of Ram, while Krishna is claimed most significantly by the Yadav community. Since the 1980s, Ram has been aggressively used as political currency by the Hindu Right to gain electoral power. For Yadavs, Krishna is a cultural hero who represents productive labour.

The Sangh Parivar baulks at the very fact that there are different versions of the Ramayana in existence. In 2011, Delhi University was forced to remove AK Ramanujan’s celebrated essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” after a writ petition was filed in court claiming the essay “hurt religious sentiments.” Ramanujan wrote that he preferred the word “tellings” to “versions or variants” because the “latter terms can and typically do imply that there is an invariant, an original or Ur-text—usually Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana, the earliest and most prestigious of them all.” But, he argued, “it is not always Valmiki's narrative that is carried from one language to another.”

More and more, alternate readings of the Ramayana have been subordinated to a singular mythological reading that seeks to preserve the dominance of Brahminical Hinduism. This Ramayana spreads the glory of Ram’s monogamy (ekapatni), strict patriarchy (pitru vakya paripalan), varna dharma (eka dharma) and, of course, one arrow (eka baan), and symbolises how the plural culture of India has been swallowed by the rigid and monotonous value system of the Aryans. The Ramayana ends with his salvation and the distribution of the kingdom to his offspring, but there is no mention of his grandsons or great-grandsons. On the other hand, the Mahabharata carries details about Krishna’s genealogy, alluding to his grandfather Ugrasena and to his grandson Anirudh.

Ram Shepherd Bheenaveni is an assistant professor in the department of sociology at Osmania University, Hyderabad. He has authored several books and articles and is presently a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. His specialisations are Indic studies, indigenous medicine, caste and religious studies, research methodology and social statistics.

Osheen Siva is a multidisciplinary artist from Tamil Nadu, currently based in Goa. Through the lens of surrealism, speculative fiction and science fiction and rooted in mythologies and her Dalit and Tamilian heritage, she imagines new words of decolonised dreamscapes, futuristic oasis with mutants and monsters and narratives of feminine power.