'There is nothing wrong in accepting Rama as a God.'
'You will not get to read a story as deep as Valmiki's Ramayana in which he talks about complex relations, strong emotions, pain, desertion and unconditional love. Whether you depict Rama as a human being or a divine person, the Ramayana is an epic with a great human story.'
'It is not religious intolerance at all; this is part of political power and polarisation. A religious person will never act intolerant towards another religion.'
Professor M M Basheer, 75, a well respected literary critic in Malayalam, has been writing for the last 55 years. One of his favourite subjects has been the Ramayana.
For the first time in his writing career, he has been abused and threatened by the 'Hanuman Sena' who wanted to know why a Muslim wanted to write about Lord Rama and the Ramayana.
Basheer Master, as he is known, is saddened that some people portrayed him as 'just a Muslim,' but in his inimitable humorous style, he says this too shall pass. He is sure of one thing; that nobody can stop him from writing on the Ramayana and he will publish a book on the Ramayana, compiling all his writings.
Professor Basheer spoke to Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com from Kozhikode where he lives.
You have been writing exhaustively on the Ramayana for many years. When did your interest in the Ramayana begin?
I have to go back many years. It was because of my Umma (mother), a woman who was born and brought up in a small village near Trivandrum. She grew up reciting Ramayanam, Harinama Keertanam (by Thunchath Ezhuthachan) and Jnanapana (devotional poems in praise of Guruvayoorappan written by the 16th century poet Poonthanam).
My Umma never went to school, but she learnt these keertanams from the Hindu children in her neighbourhood who used to pray loudly in the evening. In those days, children sat in front of a lamp and recited prayers every evening.
I grew up listening to my Umma reciting them. One day, I asked how she learnt these kritis. She recounted how she had grown up in a neighbourhood that had Hindus and Muslims living peacefully.
'I used to recite these keertanams with the Hindu children in the evenings. Similarly, they read the Koran with me.
My initiation into the Ramayana was with Thunjath Ezhuthachan's Kilipattu Adhyathma Ramayanam.
As a child, I thought there was only Adhyathma Ramayanam. Only later did I discover there were several versions of the Ramanayanam and Ezhuthachan's was just one.
Did listening to these kritis as a child kindle your interest in Malayalam literature?
Quite possible. The Malayalam teacher in my school also played a major role in my interest in Malayalam literature. Even though I got admission in an engineering college, I preferred to study Malayalam literature.
I started writing short stories at the age of 15 and after reading the stories of Kakanadan, M Mukundan, etc I realised I shouldn't venture into the field. I moved to writing plays and finally understood criticism is where my strength lay.
From then on, did you start looking at the Ramayana from a critic's point of view?
You are right. I can look at any work of literature only from a critic's angle. The first literary work in Malayalam is Rama Charitam written in the 13th century in a Malayalam that is mixed with Tamil, but it spoke only about Yudha Kaandam.
Ezhuthachan was actually re-writing what a Marathi poet had written, but while writing Adhyatma Ramayanam, he was overflowing with so much devotion for Lord Rama that every time his name was mentioned, he used hundreds of adjectives. Finally, what came out was not a translation, but poetry by a bhakt (devotee).
But Valmiki's Ramayana portrays Rama as a human being and not as a God unlike Ezhuthachan's Adhyatma Ramayanam...
Yes, Valmiki has portrayed Rama as an ordinary human being, a man with all his good and bad qualities, all his strengths and weaknesses.
The reason also could be because it was Valmiki who gave shelter to the pregnant Sita when she was abandoned by Rama and it was in his ashram that she delivered her twins.
Valmiki teaches the story of Rama to his sons through Valmiki Ramayana, and he then sends the boys to Rama where they sing Rama's story. That is how Rama realises that they are his children. Though at a couple of places, Valmiki has given divinity to Rama, his love and sympathy lay with Sita.
But the 14th and 15th centuries saw the Bhakti movement at its peak and we saw many versions of the Ramayana in almost all languages; some of them are Tulsidas Ramayana, Kamba Ramayana, etc. In all of them Rama was portrayed as a divine figure. In that period, all poets aspire to write a bhakti katha.
It is said there are more than 360 versions of the Ramayana, and I have definitely read all the translations that have come in Malayalam, but I can't say I have read all the versions.
In Indonesia, there is a version of the Ramayana in which Rama reads the Koran before going to war.
What fascinates people of many centuries about the Ramayana?
You will not get to read a story as deep as Valmiki's Ramayana in which he talks about complex relations, strong emotions, pain, desertion and unconditional love. Whether you depict Rama as a human being or a divine person, the Ramayana is an epic with a great human story.
I have read the Valmiki Ramayana, Adhyatma Ramayana, Ramacharitam, Rama Katha paattu and many other versions, and none of them picturises Rama in a negative way.
There is nothing wrong in accepting Rama as a God.
Ezhuthachan made him divine because he wanted people to see the God in him. When we read Adhyatma Ramayana, we will be filled with Bhakti.
Is it not like Vedanta which helps people see the God in themselves?
Yes, Ezhuthachan was a vedanti. His words flow like a river. Nothing comes between a reader and this epic from relishing it; neither religion nor caste.
As a critic, which one did you enjoy the most: The Valmiki Ramayana or the Adhyatma Ramayana?
I enjoy reading and writing about both, and I have written a lot about both. This time around, I had written a critical analysis of Valmiki Ramayana in which I was talking about Rama as a human being. He does things, which are unjust and unfair as all human beings do.
When I am writing about Rama as portrayed by Valmiki, how can I say he was a divine being?
But Valmiki's Sita is an extraordinary character who hardly erred. You will not see such a noble character in any other creative work. But she made one mistake. When Rama pursued Mareechan, she hurt Lakshmana by using harsh words against him. And she had to pay a huge price all her entire life for that one mistake. I wrote all this in the article, but those who attacked me did not understand all that.
Their grouse was how could a Muslim criticise our Rama? It is not me, but Valmiki who criticised Rama! But these are ignorant people; they do not know what Valmiki wrote. They have not read Valmiki Ramayana or Adhyatma Ramayana.
I did a foolish thing by trying to teach them about the Ramayana! (laughs)
Your articles were serialised in Mathrubhumi. When did these people start harassing you?
After the first issue was out, I started getting threatening calls. The first call was from a man who identified himself as a yogi from some ashram. He asked me in a very angry tone, 'What are you writing these days?' I told him, 'I am writing about Valmiki Ramayana. He angrily retorted, 'Because you are a Muslim, you can't portray our God as a human being.' I told him, 'Whether I am a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian is immaterial. I have studied Valmiki Ramayana in detail and I know every word in it. I am not the first person who has looked at Valmiki's work from a critic's point of view. Kuttikrishna Marar, the greatest critic Malayalam literature has seen, also has done this.'
I then asked him to read such works before commenting on what I have written. He got so angry that he shouted at me, 'You need not teach me.' I didn't leave it there. I persisted that he should at least read the Valmiki Ramayana! (laughs).
I asked whether he has read Jnanapana or Harinanama Keertanam. He said he didn't have to read all that. It was evident that he had not even heard of those works. When he started abusing me, I disconnected the call.
I must have received at least 250 calls that day; all abusing and threatening me. I stopped attending the calls. The calls came from some 4, 5 numbers. It continued for a few days.
Honestly, I didn't take all this seriously. What can you say about so-called yogis who have not even read Valmiki Ramayana or Adhyatma Ramayana?
But what pained me was I who grew up reciting Harinama keerthanam and Narayaneeyam, was reduced to a Muslim by some people.
Was it because of those threatening calls that you stopped your column?
I never discontinued the column. I had given all six columns to Mathrubhumi. They stopped after publishing five columns.
When the same people threatened to burn down the office of Mathrubhumi, they called and asked me if they could postpone publishing the last column. I had no objection. They apologised and discontinued the column only after I gave them permission.
Why do you think religious intolerance has increased a lot of late?
It is not religious intolerance at all; this is part of political power and polarisation. A religious person will never act intolerant towards another religion. A real religious person understands what God is.
What happened to me has nothing to do with religion, and it has not bothered me. I have already forgotten those ignorant people.
But this must be your first experience in 55 years...
I have been writing for the last 55 years, and this is not the first time that I am writing about the Ramayana. I have written hundreds of critical essays on it. I will continue to write on the Ramayana till my death; nobody can stop me. I am going to compile all my writings on the Ramayana and come out with a book.
One paper wrote that Basheer Master is going to stop writing. I called them and asked them not to publish such false news. Another newspaper wrote that I had gone into hiding when they couldn't contact me over the phone and found my house locked. I was away with my wife and her brother. I had a hearty laugh reading all this.
I must say this kind of intolerance was not there when Kuttikrishna Marar was alive; he had written more critical essays on the Ramayana.
Do you feel these people did not look at you as a scholar or a critic, but only as a Muslim?
That was the saddest part and it pained me. This was not there earlier. I wondered in which direction our nation is going. I don't even have a Muslim friend.
I am one person who recites the Narayaneeyam every day early in the morning.
I am not scared of anyone. If someone shoots me dead, I will be happy as I will become a great man then! (laughs) Only people like Mahatma Gandhi, Lincoln had such good fortune!
You spoke of political polarisation. Do you feel this kind of intolerance has increased after the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) came to power at the Centre?
Some people say it has, but I can't say for sure. But I have noticed they are not able to tolerate a different view. They want everyone to obey what they say.
Both the BJP and RSS (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) called me and apologised, saying they had nothing to do with what happened. I told them I was happy that they called me.
If you look at history, we see that those in power have always used their political power and strength to force their ideas on people. When Muslim rulers came to India, didn't they force their religion on the Indian people? When you read history, you will see that such incidents have been happening throughout our history.
But it was different in the 8th century. How did Sankaracharya face religions like Buddhism and Jainism? Through knowledge. He had no weapons with him except his deep knowledge.
Do you feel angry, perturbed or sad?
I feel like laughing! Why should I feel perturbed by what some illiterates say? We need not even talk about them. By talking about them, we are giving undue importance to their stupidity.