Raghupati Raghav Rajaram

Vinay Lal

In the Gangetic Plains, the terrain that Gandhi made his own as he came to assume the leadership of the movement for Indian independence, villagers have for centuries commonly greeted each other and strangers with the words, ‘Ram-Ram’ and ‘Jai Siya Ram’.   Much of north India is also Ramcaritmanas country, where the 15th century poet-saint Tulsidas’s majestic retelling of the Rama katha (story) holds sway.  Gandhi himself came to venerate the text, even if he was critical of some of its passages, but it is equally certain that his idea of Rama, often described in textbooks as an incarnation of Vishnu but held up by his devotees as the supreme God, an ideal ruler, and a perfectly realized being, was not derived only from the Ramcaritmanas.  Gandhi gave it as his opinion, in an article published in Young India on 22 January 1925, that “Rama, Allah and God are to me convertible terms”, and on subsequent occasions he came to affirm the idea that the Rama of which he spoke had no correspondence to “the historical Rama”, the ruler of Ayodhya and the son of King Dasharatha (Harijan, 28 April 1946).  Indeed, “true understanding”, when “the little self perishes and God becomes all in all”, required one to disavow all the common associations conjured by the name of Rama:  “Rama, then, is not the son of Dasharatha, the husband of Sita, the brother of Bharata and Lakshmana and yet is God, the unborn and eternal” (Harijan, 22 September 1946).

In his youth, on Gandhi’s own testimony, he was urged by his nurse Rambha to take the name of Rama when in distress, and he held this counsel close to his heart throughout his life.  The utterance of the name of Rama was “an infallible remedy” and “a cure for all disease”, wrote Gandhi in his journal Harijan on 24 March 1946, a point reinforced in rather more striking language on October 13th of the same year:  “I have said that to take Ramanama from the heart means deriving help from an incomparable power.  The atom bomb is as nothing compared with it.  This power is capable of removing all pain.”  But the name of Rama was not to be taken in jest, and it was all too easy even to admit that it had to come from the heart, for “to attain the reality is very difficult.”  To install Ramanama in one’s heart in turn required “infinite patience”, and a cultivation of the “virtues of truth, honesty and purity within and without” (Speech at Prayer Meeting, 25 May 1946).

It may have been to facilitate the recitation of Ramanama, and to lodge the names of the divine pair Sita and Ram in one’s heart, that Gandhi perhaps found so endearing the devotional song, “Raghupati rāghav rājārām / patit pāvan sītārām” (“Chief of the House of Raghu, Lord Ram / Saviors of the downtrodden, Sita and Ram”).  Known in popular parlance as the Ramdhun, the bhajan goes on to affirm the presence of “Sita Ram”, showering praise on them, concluding thus:  “God and Allah are your names / May God bestow wisdom on all (“īśvar allāh tero nām, sab ko sanmati de bhagavān”).  Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and the practitioners of other faiths may all know God by different names, but Gandhi did not doubt that behind this multifariousness in form there was one essential unity. Yet Indian civilization was ecumenical in other respects, too, and the Ramdhun controverts the reading, rendered more common with the advent of Hindu nationalism, of Rama as a wholly patriarchal figure.  Gandhi was not among those who thought of Sita as only Rama’s consort, and she was much more than the perfect wife and the idealized form of womanliness.  As in the many diverse traditions of the story of Rama, Gandhi was inclined to accept Sita as the equal of Rama in every respect, and, on account of her unrivalled capacity for sacrifice, a greater embodiment of the power of nonviolence.

While the precise origins of the Ramdhun are not entirely clear, reportedly Vishnu Digambar Paluskar (1872-1931), who is credited with securing the foundations of Hindustani classical music, composed the Ramdhun for Gandhi with the hope that he would take it to the masses.  We may say, apropos of Pablo Neruda’s majestic Ode to Paul Robeson—“And the voice of Paul Robeson / was divided from the silence”—that when Paluskar’s son, the child prodigy Pandit D. V. Paluskar (1921-1955), sung the Ramdhun, it sent his listeners into a blissful trance.  The Ramdhun, alongside Narsi Mehta’s bhajan, Vaishnava Jana To, became a staple at Gandhi’s daily prayer meetings, and Gandhi would often discourse on the power of the Ramdhun, even likening it to the tune of a military band to which hundreds of thousands of nonviolent soldiers could march in disciplined unison.  Narayan Desai, the son of Gandhi’s beloved secretary, Mahadev Desai, spent some years of his childhood around Gandhi and later recalled that the Ramdhun seemed to have become popular during the Salt March and the subsequent civil disobedience movement, and it continues to resonate strongly, and not only among devout Hindus, in contemporary India.

Copyright: Vinay Lal

First published as “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram”, in Experiments with TruthGandhi and Images of Nonviolence, eds. Josef Helfenstein and Joseph N. Newland (Houston:  The Menil Collection, 2014), pp. 244-45.