The Genius of Yoruba Music

This is Part Three of a series posts about Professor Brennan’s new research on Rev. J.J. Ransome-Kuti and the history of Yoruba gospel music. Here are links to the earlier posts: Part One and Part Two.

I want to build on my previous post about how Reverend J. J. Ransome-Kuti negotiated old and new ways of life for Yoruba communities in colonial Nigeria by talking about how Ransome-Kuti’s music was a part of that dynamic.  Despite the overwhelming attention to issues of language and translation by missionaries who attempted to present Christianity in terms that local Yoruba communities could understand, music was also seen as key to attracting converts as well as for their properly adopting Christian practices. Hymn singing was central to Christian evangelism, and harmoniums and hymnals were part of the cargo sent to West Africa along with Bibles and other religious tracts. Missionaries ideally sought to use the words and tunes of the hymns in order to arouse the emotions of a religiously awakened congregation.

Early musical practices in Yoruba mission churches involved translating English hymns directly into the Yoruba language and then fitting those lyrics to the appropriate melodies and harmonies hen they were performed. This practice resulted in what the musicologist Akin Euba has called “an unhappy cultural marriage.” The mismatch between Yoruba lyrics and English hymn tunes was due to the fact that the tonal nature of the Yoruba language was often distorted by the melodic contour of a given song. The Yoruba language relies on three tones—high, medium, and low—in order to distinguish semantic meaning. Translating English hymns into Yoruba, and then applying those Yoruba words to the already existing melody that was written without regard to the tonal requirements of the language potentially rendered the lyrics meaningless or at best altered their meaning unintentionally.

Akin Euba explains the tone-tune discrepancy in translating English songs directly into Yoruba. From Euba, A. 1989, "Yoruba Music in the Church"

Akin Euba explains the tone-tune discrepancy in translating English songs directly into Yoruba. From Euba, A. 1989, “Yoruba Music in the Church”

It was for this reason that early converts—and indeed the missionaries themselves, many of whom came from Yoruba communities and spoke Yoruba fluently—endeavored to compose original tunes to Yoruba hymns. One of the earliest records we have of such compositions may be found in the letters of James White, a Yoruba pastor assigned to the Church Missionary Society mission at Ota, outside of Lagos. White encouraged the production of local hymns and Christian songs, noting that Yoruba communities were skilled at using music and poetry to praise religious figures. His letters from 1857 included the following observation: “Our converts, when heathens, certainly had hymns and songs of praise in honor of their gods—might they not also, now that they are Christians compose songs and hymns in honor of the God of gods?” White’s letters also included a pamphlet entitled “Orin, Ati Iyin si Olorun” (“Hymns and Praises for God”) which contained printed lyrics and translations of hymns composed by church members.

While the efforts of White’s congregation represented an early move towards the development of a corpus of indigenous hymns among the Yoruba, shifts in the nature of evangelism and the understanding of the role of Christianity in the new social and political order of the colony at the turn of the twentieth century further encouraged such practices. In response to a shift in mission policy away from “native governance” of mission affairs, many Yoruba clergymen reacted to European assertions of African inferiority through a revaluing of Yoruba culture. Yoruba pastors and scholars developed an increased interest in Yoruba history, religion, and politics which resulted in the first books written in English by Yoruba authors concerning Yoruba history and culture. These included Samuel Johnson’s History of the Yorubas (manuscript completed in 1897, published in 1921) and James Johnson’s Yoruba Heathenism (1899).

Proponents of this perspective articulated a form of cultural nationalism that claimed that conversion to Christianity did not necessarily require a wholesale adoption of European or English ways of life. Mojola Agbebi, a leader of this movement, argued in an influential speech given in 1902 that certain practices were not essential to being a Christian but instead interfered with what he saw as the African achievement of a Christian identity identity:

Prayer-books and hymn-books, harmonium dedications, pew constructions, surpliced choir, the white man’s style, the white man’s name, the white man’s dress, are so many non-essentials, so many props and crutches affecting the religious manhood of the Christian African.

In this speech Agbebi suggested that the style or form in which Christianity was practiced was not important.  Agbebi began a process in which Christianity became unlinked from “whiteness” and cultural aspects which were seen as being European not African. In this way Christian practice became open to the inclusion of African modes of expression.

Mojola Agbebi

Mojola Agbebi

In a sermon later that year Agbebi expanded further on the ways in which Christian musical practices could be “Africanized”:

It was recorded of the early disciples that after the Celebration of the Last Supper ‘they sang a hymn,’ yet it should be remembered that neither the harmonium, nor the organ, nor the piano was known to them. Our dundun and Batakoto, our Gese and Kerikeri, our Fajakis and Sambas would serve admirable purposes of joy and praise if properly directed and wisely brought into play. (…) In the carrying out of the function of singing, therefore, let us always remember that we are Africans, and that we ought to sing African songs, and that in African style and fashion.

In this sermon Agbebi articulated a particular conception of Christianity connected to a newly developed sense of historical time and global space as he attempted to account for the location of Africans—particularly Yorubas—within a wider Christian historical framework. His call to “sing African songs” in an “African style and fashion” suggests that singing itself was an important aspect of Christian practice, not the nature of the song itself, which should be suited to the linguistic and emotional preferences of the person singing the song. Agbebi’s comments here also spoke to the way in which musical practice could become compelling for Yoruba Christians through the integration of African musical practices for the purpose of joy and praise.

Ransome-Kuti’s corpus of sacred songs was part of this movement towards the Africanization of church music. In addition to composing new hymns that began with Yoruba lyrics and adapted melodies to suit them, he also took the bold step of adapting indigenous tunes to newly composed Christian words. A selection of his hymns, entitled Awon Orin Mimo Ni Ede Ati Ohun Wa (Sacred Songs in Our Language and Intonation), was published by the CMS bookshop in Lagos in 1925. In addition, 57 of his songs were published as an appendix to the standard Yoruba hymnbook (1923), and editors noted his contribution in the Preface by writing:

No tune, however, can possibly express the meaning of words in a “tonic” language such as Yoruba, so well as one written specifically for the words. Great thanks are therefore due to the Rev. J. J. Ransome Kuti for his contribution of original airs, which express the genius of Yoruba music, and will, for that reason, be greatly appreciated.

Unfortunately, no such note of acknowledgement exists to account for the Ransome-Kuti’s recording of his songs in 1922, though we might make a reasonable assumption that they were also part of this movement for greater autonomy for Yoruba clergy and indigenization of Christianity in Yoruba communities. I hope through future research to substantiate this assumption.

Ransome-Kuti: Between Old and New

In my last post about Rev. J.J. Ransome-Kuti and the origins of Yoruba gospel music I indicated that there were a number of things that I do not know about his recordings; namely why they were made, how they were distributed and marketed, and who constituted their audiences at the time. I am still continuing to research those questions. However, there is much that is known about Ransome-Kuti and the period of Yoruba church history in which he made his recordings. In today’s post I will write about how we can understand the Ransome-Kuti recordings in relation to both his life history as well to historical developments in Yoruba Christianity.

Isaac Delano, Ransome-Kuti's biographer.

Isaac Delano, Ransome-Kuti’s biographer.

There are a number of published biographies of Ransome-Kuti, though they are mainly available to readers in Nigeria. Of particular interest are two books written by Isaac O. Delano, a Yoruba intellectual from a prominent Christian family in Abeokuta, who wrote a number of books about Yoruba language and culture. Delano’s first book about Ransome-Kuti, The Singing minister of Nigeria, was published in 1942 by the United Society for Christian Literature. The intention of the book, as noted in the Publishers’ Note, was to “stimulate Africans to take an interest in the reading of the great tribes and personalities of their continent.” The second book, Josaiah Ransome-Kuti: The drummer boy who became a canon, is an abridged version of the first, and was published by Oxford University Press in Ibadan, as part of their “Makers of Nigeria” series.

In Delano’s account, Ransome-Kuti is depicted as champion of local Yoruba leadership within mission Christianity. One of the ways Delano does this is through stressing Ransome-Kuti’s devotion both to the Yoruba communities in which he worked as well as to the goals of Christian evangelism and conversion in those communities. Delano describes Ransome-Kuti as “the link between the old and the new civilizations, as well as between the black and white” (51).  Thus, even though Ransome-Kuti was a tireless warrior against traditional religion, he recognized the values of Yoruba language, music, and forms of social organization in his ministry. Even though he was a representative of the British colonial administration (according to Delano he was given a mandate by the Egba Government to act on its behalf), he was also a keen voice in support of “native” leadership in the church and at local levels.

Two examples from his biography make these aspects of Ransome-Kuti’s orientation towards Yoruba Christianity clear. The first concerns his campaign in the town of Ilaro to allow Christians to use umbrellas. The umbrella served as symbol of royal power and for this reason was restricted to the use of the ọba (king) of the town.

Egba Kings with Umbrellas

Egba Kings with Umbrellas, a symbol of royal power under dispute in Ilaro.

Ransome-Kuti’s petition was granted by the palace; however his actions were viewed as threatening to local authority by some members of the community. Ransome-Kuti was attacked with machetes in the night by members of this faction. These actions led to a larger stand-off between the Christians in the community who wanted to take their revenge, the parties connected to the King’s palace who were seen as responsible for the attack, and the British government representatives who sent a battalion of soldiers to the area in anticipation of violence. Ransome-Kuti worked to stave off a large-scale conflict in the community by negotiating between the three sides. The resolution of this event involved the trial of those involved in the attack on Ransome-Kuti in the British court and an easing of tensions between Christians and non-Christians in Ilaro. Ransome-Kuti is identified by Delano as responsible for this; as he writes, “Christianity at Ilaro was built on the blood of Kuti” (35).

At the other end of the spectrum, Ransome-Kuti was also not afraid to challenge the mission leadership and colonial administration in support of the Yoruba communities in which he worked. For example, he challenged the church constitution by baptizing the children of of those whose parents weren’t married in the church and was found guilty by the Episcopal Court for this offense. When his followers in Abeokuta wanted to split from the Diocese over this, he implored them to work to change the church policy from within. Ransome-Kuti’s other clash with church leadership was over whether or not a group of Christian elders who called themselves the “Christian Ogboni” could hold their Thanksgiving service in the church. The Ogboni were a secret society that before colonialism had played an important role in politics and who acted in a judicial capacity in Yoruba communities. The Christian elders at the Ake church in Abeokuta had formed  themselves into a similar society, taken titles, and went about settling matters between Christians. For allowing the Christian Ogboni to hold their Thanksgiving service, Ransome-Kuti was charged with “introducing heathenism into the church” (46). Due to the overwhelming support of the local congregation for Ransome-Kuti’s actions, he was let off from this charge with a warning.

It is actions such as these that lead Delano to celebrate Ransome-Kuti for being “a man who stood firmly between the old and the new Egba people at a time when they were passing through difficult and revolutionary changes” ( 63-64). Here, Ransome-Kuti stands as a metaphor for Yoruba modernization.

Such qualities also characterize Delano’s description of Ransome-Kuti’s musical abilities. While Delano writes little about Ransome-Kuti’s musical recordings other than noting that they were made, he does tell us about Ransome-Kuti’s musical endeavors, portraying them as similarly straddling old and new, black and white. Delano writes,

He was first and foremost a craftsman, labouring to build up native music with the same conscience with which a first-class carpenter would build a table. He picked some of the best native airs, polished them up and set them to music. They were more easily followed and understood by the hundreds of converts whom he was to bring into the fold of Christ. [12]

In this way Ransome-Kuti is portrayed as both Christianizing and modernizing (by “polishing up”) Yoruba music at the same time as he translated Christian musical practices to Yoruba communities. Delano also notes the importance of music for galvanizing Yoruba and Christian devotion. Towards the end of the book he describes an enthusiastic crowd listening to Ransome-Kuti preaching in the town market:

Mounted on a petrol box, Kuti would be singing with hand raised, his earnest face illumined but the peace in his soul; his bushy hair waving in the breeze. The people around him would sing lustily. They sang as they felt; they felt as they sang. The same cure, the same key was offered for the unlocking of the mysteries of their hearts. [58-59]

It is in such descriptions that we can better understand why Ransome-Kuti’s songs may have been singled out to be recorded. More importantly, we can see the centrality of musical practice for Yoruba Christian experience—the feelingful aspects of singing that drew converts to the church and made them feel connected to and at ease with the changes that were happening around them at the time.

In my next post I will address some of the musical characteristics of Ransome-Kuti’s songs, in order to better understand how this negotiation between old and new was accomplished musically.

Rev. J. J. Ransome-Kuti and the History of Yoruba Gospel Music

Last September I announced on the REL@UVM blog that I would post periodic updates about what I was up to while on sabbatical. I then disappeared…into my field notes, stacks of library books, and pages of notes on my new book project. Well, I am back! I am still in the thick of it—ordering books from Interlibrary Loan, searching through indexes to find out which archives might hold relevant sources, and scribbling and typing notes on what I know and what I need to find out. This month I plan to share some of these notes in a series of posts describing my current research and providing some insights into the research process.

A selection of labels from releases by J. J. Ransome-Kuti, from Black Europe endpapers.

A selection of labels from releases by J. J. Ransome-Kuti, from Black Europe endpapers.

The main project I have been working on since September has been a study of commercially recorded and distributed Yoruba gospel music. This topic emerged naturally out of my research on music in Cherubim and Seraphim churches in Lagos, as the church where I based much of that earlier research had a choir that released a number of successful recordings (see my article about these recordings here). My interest in the gospel music industry in southwest Nigeria led me to investigate the history of this genre. When were the first recordings of Yoruba Christian music made? How? Who made up the audience? Do the recordings circulate today?

These questions led me to focus on what I believe are among the earliest—if not the earliest—sound recordings of Yoruba gospel music. In 1922 the Reverend Josaiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti traveled from his home near Abeokuta, Nigeria to London, England to attend the Church Missionary Society Exhibition. While there, he recorded a total of 43 songs which were released on double-sided Zonophone discs by the Gramophone Company.

Rev. J.J. Ransome-Kuti

Reverend J. J. Ransome Kuti

According to most sources, Ransome-Kuti wrote and arranged all of the songs he recorded. The recordings feature Ransome-Kuti singing to piano accompaniment. The majority of the songs are described on record labels as Yoruba “hymns” or “sacred songs.” In addition to these Christian songs he also recorded a funeral lament, and a track described on the label as “Abeokuta National Anthem,” a folk song about the strength of the Egba Yoruba community in which Ransome-Kuti lived.

I first heard these recordings when I visited the British Library in 2010. However, they have since been released by Bear Family Productions on a monumental boxed set called Black Europe that documents the sounds and images of black people in Europe prior to 1927. The set includes 45 discs of music and data, along with two coffee-table books that provide documentation and background information about the recordings. While only 500 copies of the Black Europe set were released, when I asked Lori Holiff, the librarian at UVM’s Bailey-Howe Library, to purchase a copy she readily agreed. In the past three months I have been poring over the recordings and combing through the extensive documentation to help me understand the significance of these recordings for both the history of Yoruba Christian music as well as for the development of the music industry in Nigeria.

I have a lot of questions to ask of these recordings. It is unclear exactly why they were made and how they were used. In a paper concerning the history of the recording industry in West Africa, Paul Vernon suggests that the Ransome-Kuti recordings were likely novelty records made for British audiences. I have a difficult time imagining non-Yoruba speaking listeners to these recordings, nor does this explanation account for the number of songs that Ransome-Kuti recorded. A more promising explanation is found on a promotional sheet reproduced in the Black Europe book, which notes that the recordings were made by Ransome-Kuti “so that the Sacred Songs of his own composition…may be available to all Yoruba speaking people” (Vol. 2, p. 194) This statement opens up the possibility that they were recorded for and distributed to the growing number of elite, educated, and Christian Yoruba families in Lagos and Abeokuta, Nigeria in the 1920s. This group constituted an early market for Western commodities, which may very well have included gramophones. I am looking for additional evidence that supports this interpretation. I still have to follow the strands through the archives and history books to determine to what extent the playback technology was available for consumers in Nigeria in the 1920s and 1930s and whether or not recordings such as those made by Ransome-Kuti were marketed to listeners in Nigeria.

I am also interested in how these recordings were used, and what people thought about them at the time. Did they help to circulate the growing corpus of Christian songs composed by Yoruba musicians to the expanding number of churches in the Yoruba-speaking region of the colony? If so, this represented a transformation in the way Christian practices were circulated between churches. Were the recordings intended to help congregations learn these songs so that they could sing them during church worship? Did they supplement the numerous printed hymnals and other song books in which the songs appear?

I do not have the answer to these questions though I have some ideas about what I will find, as well as some ideas about the implications my findings will have for understanding the development and significance of Yoruba Christian music. In the coming weeks I will tell you more about what I have found out about J.J. Ransome-Kuti and these recordings, how my research questions have developed over time, and what new directions this project will take me towards in the future.

Read Part 2 of this series of posts, “Ransome-Kuti: Between Old and New.”

Student Research: Complications Within a Feminist Sita

This post originally appeared on the REL131: Studies in Hindu Traditions blog. An explanation, introduction, and justification for my class’ final research project can be found here (and also here).
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Complications Within a Feminist Sita
by Kathryn Meader

Sita is often heralded as the ideal woman, the ideal wife, and the ideal mother. A monumental and intimidating character, she is almost more central to the Ramayana than Rama himself. She is the mother of Rama’s children, and cares for them as the poet Valmiki recounts her story. When Sita arrives on the banks of the Ganga, Narada says to the poet, “Get up, save her life, and let her live here with you and your companions; and make in measured words the song of Rama”(Buck, 6). She frames the story, and she sculpts the story, all while still maintaining an outward appearance of a demure, submissive wife. The image of an ideal wife as dependent upon her husband is an attractive one to a mainly misogynistic society, but what happens when women take ownership of Sita as a role model? Do they see a demure, restrained woman, or is she transformed? In feminist readings of the Ramayana, Sita is still seen as an ideal for every woman to strive for, but she is far from quiet. She is fierce as she endures a trial by fire to prove her faithfulness, and is strong as she defies her husband when he asks her a second time to walk through the flames. In many ways, this moment within the text can be used as a focal point from which to see the various ways in which her image is manipulated popularly in both feminist and traditional reads of the text.

In Madhu Kishwar’s article, “Yes to Sita, No to Ram” she explores the popular understanding of Sita as a woman “whose sense of Dharma is superior to and more awe inspiring than that of Ram – someone who puts even maryada purushottam Ram – the most perfect of men – to shame”(Kishwar,1).  This deeper read of Sita’s character is much more compelling than the simple, surface level understanding. She is not a meek woman who allows herself to be enslaved and mistreated by her husband. She is a fierce creature with a sense of pride and duty, whose rejection of Rama is the ultimate representation of dignity.

Looking at her actions within the Ramayana, one can open up the possibility for a feminist read of Sita that is at once empowering and quite complicated. It is complicated simply because if she is the ideal woman, and he the ideal man, how can the reader comprehend and rationalize the horrid mistreatment that Rama puts her through? In Linda Hess’s article “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife” she goes into an analysis of the various versions of the Ramayana and how these versions betray the cultural attitude towards Sita’s treatment, and what we can learn from these variations. She attempts to understand the issues involved with using such a complicated character as an image of empowerment, while she is simultaneously being used as an image of oppression.

Today more than ever before, Sita is a site of contestation. The Sita who clung to the dharma of worshiping her husband and bowing to his will, even when he repeatedly and cruelly rejected her, is still embraced as the ideal woman by many Hindus of both sexes. But others, increasingly, are describing that ideal as concocted by and serving the interests of dominant males from ancient times to the present. (Hess, 27-28)

The culminating moment of Sita’s story in the Ramayana comes during her trial by fire when she and Rama return victorious to Ayodhya. Her devotion to Ram is so complete that she is willing to walk to fire to prove that she had not touched or been touched by another man during her absence. His lack of faith in her, and unwillingness to prove to his people her innocence is what causes her eventual exile. This moment of Sita within the flames has been depicted countless times. Images have many layers of meaning, and every character in these depictions is giving us insight into the commentary of the artist. Sita is often shown serenely within the flames, with Agni by her side as Ram and Lakshman look on coldly. Hanuman is sometimes turned away from the sight. Each character is giving an opinion of the trial, as well as their opinion of Rama’s actions, through their body language.

“Sita’s Ordeal by Fire” (c.1895) from the British museum

In this popular depiction of the scene from c. 1895, Sita is as serene as ever, and the god Agni is faithfully by her side, but what is going on in the audience is very interesting. Rama is being restrained forcefully from entering the flames to save his love, while Hanuman shields his eyes (whether in aversion for the sight or disapproval of Ram, one cannot be sure). This version of the image is interesting because it illustrates the mixed feelings that Ram must have had about the ordeal for Sita. This image emphasizes the popular belief that Rama was wrong to exile her from the palace after she had proved herself to him, not to mention the fact that she was pregnant with twins. These opinions are not found within the text, and are a clear example of popular understanding of the story working its way into more widespread imagery.

Another important arena where a more feminist read of Sita flourishes is within the folk tradition of songs. In Rashmi Luthra’s article she goes into the connections between main female characters in the epics and the way they are represented in popular folk songs. The re-articulations within this setting create greater space for the elaboration and positioning of post-colonial Indian feminisms. The epics continue to be an important part of the cultural field and these appropriations are placed within the debate over the use of traditional narratives, in order to garner insight into the potential of the narratives as a resource for feminist projects. (Luthra, 35). Usha Zacharias is engaged in the same project of examining post-colonial feminisms in her article “Trial by Fire: Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of the Nation.” Zacharias moves between the development of Indian feminism and various instances of Sita’s character within the Ramayana, and serves to illustrate how Sita’s image is used to create the modern ideal of female citizenship. The ideal being pushed is that of a strong woman who stands up for herself, but also understands her place within the larger scheme.

Sita is a character that does not receive the development that she deserves within the text of the Ramayana. When she is understood in the hearts and minds of the readers, her personality and actions are elaborated in ways that are not always the way that the text intended. She can be used by the most traditional of men to set forth an example of their perfect, subordinate wife, while simultaneously being used as a rallying point for women who have had enough of their husbands. All who read her story carefully witness the strength within her character, but the way her image is employed in the popular arena illustrates the variations to be found within this ancient text.

Works Cited:

Buck, William, and B. A. van Nooten. Ramayana. Third Edition. Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press, 2012.

Hess, Linda. “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol 67. No. 1 (March, 1999).

Kishwar, Madhu. “Yes to Sita, No to Ram: The Continuing Hold of Sita on Popular Imagination in India,” in Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition, ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Luthra, Rashmi. “Clearing Sacred Ground: Women-Centered Interpretations of the Indian Epics,” Feminist Formations 26, no. 2 (2014): 135–61.

Zacharias, Usha. “Trial by Fire: Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of the Nation.” Social Text 19, no. 4 (2001): 29–51.

“Sita’s Ordeal by Fire.” British Museum. (Click on image above for link)

Student Research: Rama and Ravana’s Divine Antagonism

This post originally appeared on the REL131: Studies in Hindu Traditions blog. An explanation, introduction, and justification for my class’ final research project can be found here (and also here).
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Rama and Ravana’s Divine Antagonism
by Celia DeLago

Standard depiction of Rama and Ravana's divinely antagonistic relationship.

Standard depiction of Rama and Ravana’s divinely antagonistic relationship.

Through this post, I will be exploring both the mystical relationship of Ravana and Rama; as well as how their characters were viewed moralistically at the time through the use of Tulsi’s views on society; to explore how Ravana and Rama’s relationship affects how we view the deeper messages that Valmiki gave us within the Ramayana.

The symbolism of Rama and Ravana’s relationship within Buck’s Ramayana, as well as through the lens of Tulsidas’ Ramacaritmanas, conveys complex philosophical concepts, such as the nirguna (supreme formless reality) and saguna (manifestation of god in form) aspects of reality through their, at times, antagonistic guru-disciple relationship. The multifaceted relationship of Rama and Ravana is not covered in every version of the Ramayana. However, William Buck’s retelling of this epic allows us to explore their deeper relationship through poetic language.

The potential guru-disciple relationship between Rama and Ravana shapes our perception of the philosophical concepts presented within the Ramayana. The narrative of the nuanced relationship between “good” and “evil,” encapsulated in Rama and Ravana’s feud, attempts to shape our views of reality. The acknowledgment of the ambiguity of “good” and “evil,” accentuated and played with by an eternal, infinite timeline, encourages and, at times, forces the reader to open their minds to a deeper understanding of reality. The infinite change that occurs as a result of the infinite timelines of the various deities leaves much room for the changing and developing of characters. The use of themes like telepathic communication, divine powers and mystical experience among the deities gives the readers a glimpse into the deeper, “true” reality beyond the epic of these characters. Ultimately, Ravana is defeated by Rama. Suka delivers a stone from Ravana to Rama, and we learn that Ravana is actually Rama’s devotee. Ravana lauds Rama as Lord Narayana, as the Supreme, and reveals that even while Rama is unaware that he is secretly a deity, Ravana has been aware all along, because his bhakti towards Rama and his desire to attain moksha through devotion to Rama has allowed him to always see Rama’s true form. Rama dismisses this revelation out-of-hand; and through this seemingly simple gesture, the dharma of Ravana is perfected and completed, as Rama lives on as king of Ayodhya (Buck).

As an interesting cultural observation: I decided to Google search phrases like "Rama's negative qualities" while doing research for this paper. Many people have posted questions such as, "Why is Ravana considered evil?," "What are some of Rama's negative traits?," etc. Here were some interesting responses (perhaps of Rama devotees and traditionalists) that I found.

As a cultural observation: I decided to Google phrases such as “Rama’s negative qualities” while doing research for this paper. Many people posted questions previously such as, “Why is Ravana considered evil?,” “What are some of Rama’s negative traits?,” etc. Here were some interesting responses that I found.

We can acknowledge the goodness within Ravana, and the lack of moral integrity and humanity within Rama; And ultimately, we must acknowledge their deeper relationship. Ravana’s goodness is highlighted and emphasized at important times (often before he is beaten down by humility once again). Ravana earned his boon through engaging in austerities for almost 10,000 years to Lord Shiva; was released from Lord Vishnu’s mountain-cage for his beautiful songs; and, ultimately, confessed his sincere guru-devotion to Rama (12, 35, 350-351 Buck). On the other hand, Rama engages in mutual deformation of Surpanakha and disrespect to Ravana; and continually treated Sita in reprehensible ways, requiring her to undergo Agni Pariksha (trial by fire), and ultimately banishing her while she is pregnant with two children (Buck).

The morality (and amorality) of both Rama and Ravana shapes the applicability of these concepts to our own lives: we may be intrigued by Ravana’s asceticism or beautiful singing, but his actions, such as killing the virtuous, saintly Vulture King Jatayu, may make us question the efficacy of, say, certain rituals, or moralistic beliefs and alliances. These multifaceted characters exist as animate representations of important archetypes and symbols found, for example, within various religious traditions: the duality of the yin-yang, as well as the tomoe; the boisterous behavior of the Greek and Roman gods, etc. Humans can relate to characters that have many facets, who fail and act in evil ways but also strive for goodness.

It is also important to investigate the ethics and morality of Ravana and Rama, informed by Tulsidas’ approach to society and his views on ethical, spiritual and social qualities found within Savitra Chandra’s article on Hindu social life (49, Chandra). Evaluating the characters of the Ramayana through the lens of the cultural attitudes of the time, we can gain a better understanding of how norms shaped the epic and thus informed cultural attitudes. It is easy to display some of the strange cognitive dissonance that seemingly comprises most of the characters in the Ramayana: Rama is held as the ultimate, the Supreme, but still performs actions that are deplorable. Ravana is a rapist, a misogynist and a murderer, as well as being a previously-devout ascetic for almost 10,000 years. The complexity of these characters affects how we interpret the philosophical concepts of Buck’s Ramayana by giving us these messages through questionable characters.

In Chandra’s “Two Aspects of Hindu Social Life and Thought,” we learned that, although Tulsidas was a bhakti devotee of Rama, a man considered a saint, he also held worrisome views about his basis of qualifying members of society (49, Chandra). Through Chandra’s description of uttam, we can conclude Rama falls within the high first category, and had obviously lorded over Ram-Rajya (the kingdom of Ram; the greatest kingdom in history before the fall into Kali Yuga): “The ethical and spiritual qualities…include humility, absence of arrogance, straightforwardness, equanimity, lack of attachment to worldly things, and above all, a sense of discrimination or understanding of good and bad” (49, Chandra). Chandra goes on to say that “Tulsi includes good rulers and their agents in the category of uttam” (Chandra, 50). Rama also committed negative deeds, towards Ravana and his sister Surpanakha, in a way that was lacking in humility. To summarize: “He seems utterly unaware of having done Ravana any harm” (97, Goldman).

It is also hard to decipher where Ravana belongs within Tulsi’s view of society. Chandra "Depiction of Satan," Gustave Doré c. 1868discusses nich, a person of low quality or status who needs to be kept firmly under control (Chandra, 52). We may very easily draw this parallel to Ravana, who is portrayed as the lowest of the low throughout the epic. We, as the readers, are encouraged to hate Ravana from the beginning solely based on the title of the epic. But Ravana is not evil through and through; Ravana is more akin to Satan, a fallen angel capable of goodness but prescribed by the fates to committing negative deeds until his death. At the same time, however, Ravana, like Rama, ruled over a kingdom (Lanka), and had devoted servants. He was born a Brahmin, and was an ascetic devotee of Lord Shiva.

Interestingly enough, those who would be considered nich by Tulsi have come to express sympathy for Ravana, often as a political gesture against oppression:

“Glorification of Ravana is not unknown. According to a minor tradition, the demons of Vishnu are successive reincarnations of his attendants, who take this form in order to be near him…In modern times, Tamil groups who oppose what they believe to be the political domination of southern India by the north view the story of Rama as an example of the Sanskritization and cultural repression of the south and express their sympathies for Ravana and against Rama.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Ravana has been utilized as a cultural, political symbol that extends beyond his original intended purpose within the myth, and for good reason. If we cannot clearly decipher the moral integrity of the designated antagonist, it is fair to say that we cannot trust that the appointed protagonist is worthy of our admiration.


Bibliography:

1.Eck, Diana. Darśan. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

2. Buck, William, and Vālmīki. Ramayana. Berkeley: University of California, 1976.

3. Velchuru Narayana Rao,“Rāmāyaṇa,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Edition, ed. Lindsay Jones (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 7616-7618.

4. Rama and Lakshmana Fighting Ravana (India, Pahari, Bilaspur School). 1750. Painting. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Edward L. Whittemore Fund, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

5. Savitri Chandra, “Two Aspects of Hindu Social Life and Thought, as Reflected in the Works of Tulsidas,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Feb., 1976), pp. 48-60.

6. Goldman, R., and J. Masson. “Who Knows Ravana?–A Narrative Difficulty in the Valmiki Ramayana.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 50.1/4 (1969): 95-100. JSTOR. Web. http://www.jstor.org/stable/416942

7. McCrea, Lawrence. 2010. “Poetry beyond good and evil: Bilhaṇa and the tradition of patron-centered court epic.” Journal Of Indian Philosophy 38, no. 5: 503-518. ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost (accessed October 24, 2014).

Hyperlink Bibliography:

8. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Ravana.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

9. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Rama (Hindu Deity).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

10. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Tulsidas.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

11. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Ramayana (Indian Epic).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

12. “Ramcharitmanas.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guru-shishya_tradition

14. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/653297/yinyang

15. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/585989/telepathy

  1. http://symboldictionary.net/?p=1660

17. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/244670/Greek-mythology

18. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/507866/Roman-religion

19. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/63933/bhakti

20. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/387852/moksha

21. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surpanakha

22. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanka

23.http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/90/GustaveDoreParadiseLostSatanProfile.jpg

Student Research: Hanuman, a Pop-Culture Icon

This post originally appeared on the REL131: Studies in Hindu Traditions blog. An explanation, introduction, and justification for my class’ final research project can be found here (and also here).
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Hanuman, a Pop-Culture Icon
by Dory Cooper

In modern media Hanuman, the beloved half-monkey god, stars in popular comic books, saturday morning cartoons, and feature films targeted toward children ages 3-8. He is a rebellious, tounge in cheeck,“bad guy fighting” superhero that all children want to be like. He is an icon and role model for boys young and old. However in traditional tellings of the Ramayana, Hanuman is presented as a devotee of Rama, the original star of the epic. Are these two contrasted characteristics given to Hanuman to attract young boys to the positive characteristic of the role model and story of the Ramayana, or are the positive characteristics lost in the crime fighting action?

Hanuman is featured and praised in Buck’s Ramayana as a devotee and hero for saving Ram through several brave acts. In Buck’s Ramayana, Hanuman is characterized as calm, collected, brave, strong, all knowing, modest, and a problem solver. Because of his actions, Hanuman joins the “good guy” side of the epic battles along with Ram, Lakshmana, and Sita. However, Hanuman’s characteristics contrast boldly from the other “good guys” of the story. Ram is presented as flaky, unreasonable, selfish, focussed on his strength, and often makes rash decisions. Lakshmana is a dedicated brother who follows Rama’s every command and rarely disagrees.  On the contrary, Hanuman boldly shows his disagreement with Ram’s character and is never presented as acting for himself.

Wolcott’s article “Hanuman: The Power-Dispensive Monkey in North Indian Folk Religion” discusses the importance that Hanuman has on popular traditons and that he is the most celebrated/significant character of the Ramayana. Many see Hanuman as a doorway to God because he helps Ram/God in ways that he couldn’t do himself. For example, Hanuman is  the only one who is able to find Sita and Ram then  becomes dependent on him to complete his mission.  There are a lot of side stories that go along with the Ramayana and the most popular feature Hanuman. Wolcott  notes that there are also more temples and shrines dedicated Hanuman than for Ram or Sita. Wolcott argues that this is because Hanuman is more relatable and seen as more of an everyday hero.

In order to understand how Hanuman is understood by modern children, I took a look at media commonly consumed by children in India. Comic books, morning cartoons, and big screen movies are largely consumed by young children as they are highly accessible and quite entertaining. As anyone can remember from their own childhood, the movies and TV shows we watch as children are remembered and idolized through adulthood. This media is and highly imfluencial on children’s behavior and interests.

Amar Chitra Katha’s comic book version of the Ramayana is widely distributed and is  presented in an accessible and exciting way to children. This version of the Ramayana is

“Then Hanuman assumed a huge form… and leaped into the sky!”

fast-paced and focused on the battlesand adventures between Ram, Ravana, and Hanuman. Hanuman is depicted as a large and strong figure who saves the “good guys” from the “bad guys,” a common comic book storyline. This depiction of Hanuman as stronger hero than Ram, puts Hanuman’s importance in the Ramayana on a pedestal over Ram. It shows young boys that if you are brave, strong, and a little cheeky, you may outsmart “evil” and do your role in saving the “good.” This sets the standard that risky, rebellious, sneaky behavior that shows your strength is seen as positive in young boys. In this version his calmness and modesty, two important characteristics to instill in young boys, is little seen.

When researching modern images of Hanuman, I came across this ad for a film titled “Hanuman Returns.” The image was alongside an article published by Animation Xpress in 2011 discussing the release of a spin-off television show to the movie.The movie and television show are produced by POGO, a popular channel for children and families. According to their website, POGO is available in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan and in 5 different languages. The movie and television series is reaching many children, and is pretty obviously targeted at young boys. This image and other modern portrayals of Hanuman are the most useful materials for getting a glimpse of how young boys interpret both Hanuman’s interactions in a religious context and how his behaviors may impact their behaviors.

The ad depicts a reincarnation of Hanuman in the center with several characters from the Ramayana behind him, including Ram. Hanuman is depicted as a young boy, which attracts young boys and sets him as a role model for behavior. He is dressed in modernclothing, but his monkey features, mouth, ears, and tail, are apparent. Hanuman is drawn to be larger than the other characters showing his importance in both the storyline of the movie, but also reflects his role in the Ramayana as young boys will interpret it. Hanuman stands with his arms folded and at a casual pose to be understood as feeling calm about the “bad guys” and gods standing behind him – he is not afraid or nervous to be in their presence, but standing in a position as if he is above the other characters. A lightning bolt and color change divides the ad, categorizing the “good” and the “evil.” The producer summarizes the plot as Hanuman “using his superpowers to vanquish evil and protect the innocent.” It is obvious that the right side of the ad represents the evil and that Ram and Laksmana represent the good. This gives the message to children that some people are always good while others are always bad. As we mentioned in class, the Ramayana itself does not make such a clear distinction.

The Economic Times draws attention to the fact that children, specifically in India, are heavily drawn to animation and animated movies. Using animation, similar to the comic book depiction, makes the stories of the Ramayana more desired, accessible, and relatable to young children.

The article also points to POGO, the home of the Adventures of Hanuman cartoon series, as one of the largest and growing childrens television channels. Since lot of children in India are watching POGO and The New Adventures of Hanuman, his portrayal in this series is very influential on their behavior. The New Adventures of Hanuman depicts the Hanuman boy avatar as the leader of his friend group and problem solving hero. He is fast, strong, brave, takes risks, and acts as a good friend. The children’s television series is fast paced, colorful, full of exciting music, and seems like it would keep any child under the age of nine entertained.

Setting Hanuman as a beloved children’s character makes the story of the Ramayana extremely accessible to anyone and becomes imbedded in pop-culture. As a pop-culture icon, Hanuman becomes the star of the Ramayana. Creators of mass media featuring Hanuman have a lot of power in fostering children’s understanding of religion as they grow older as well as their behavior. In general the produced mass media of Hanuman portrays him as strong, brave, risky, and always willing to help a friend to save the day from the “bad guy.” After consuming media glorifying Hanuman boys’ will most likely perceive the story of the Ramayana in a different light. Instead of seeing it as Ram’s story, they may instead view the series of events as an explanation of Hanuman’s character and more depth of the stories they learned to know and love.

Spreading the Good News: AAR’s Religious Studies Major Survey

As some of you know, we here in the Religion Department–thanks to Kevin Trainor‘s successful grant application–participated in the American Academy of Religion‘s Survey of the Long-Term Impacts of the Religious Studies Major. Here’s what AAR says about the purpose of the survey

The focus of the survey is not merely upon what former majors are currently doing, but also upon what they learned (and what they wish they had learned), what parts of the major they have found to be useful, and how the study of religion has shaped their values and actions.

We are thrilled to report that of our roughly 330 alumni, 116 participated in the survey; our 58% response rate far outpaced the 37% response rate for the survey as a whole. Not only does this (statistically significant) data help us pinpoint what we do well so that we might keep on doing it, but in the couple of months we’ve had the results, it has already helped us think critically about where we might better serve our current and future students. We are so grateful to all those who participated, and as we continue to sift through the data and comments, we will make available additional information.

Here are some highlights:
(click the images to enlarge)

  • Our alumni report a 95.7% employment rate, which is more than 10% higher than the national religion major data (82.3%).

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  • Our alumni work in a variety of fields, from medicine to education to environmental science. The following represent the top areas of employment (i.e., above 7% of respondents):

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  •  The majority of our alumni report being satisfied or extremely satisfied with their Religion degrees:

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  •  And, our alumni overwhelmingly agree that their education contributes to their quality of life.

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This last chart is sure to please Prof. Richard Sugarman, who not long ago quipped to Seven Days that:

“Right now everybody is concerned with making a living. Perfectly understandable,” he says. “But you also have to make a life.”

We are pleased to see that our alums seem to be making both a living and a life.

To those who participated: thank you! We were happy to hear from you–and, well, about you. Look forward to us reaching out again, with opportunities to keep us posted on your life, get involved with students as well as other alumni, and perhaps even contribute to this blog.

Bad Gifts

pindabaat.thailand 2009.compressed

            Every day, around Bangkok, among other places in the Theravāda world, lay people give gifts to monks. During the spring semester, when taking my son to his school in western Bangkok, I would see groups of monks from the wat just down the road. These monks walk barefoot (!) around the neighborhood, stopping to receive an offering when people proffered them. Monks would often stop by the bus stop, which was a de facto market where people would buy breakfast, and perhaps make merit. (One established market I biked by every day in Chiang Mai advertised itself in the following way: “Make Merit! Fill a monk’s bowl! Buy things! Fresh and Safe!”). Others seemed to have set rounds of houses. There was one monk who I would see standing outside of a house waiting. Normally, the lay people are supposed to wait for the monk, but the occupant of the house was an older woman who could not move quickly. So the monk waited for her, knowing that she liked to make merit most mornings. Normally, lay people give monks (and novices) food at these times, and indeed most of what is given to monks are among the “requisites” that they need for their well-being: food, daily use articles like shavers, pens and paper or books for education, medicine. Less frequently, monks are given new robes, or a begging bowl. Occasionally, though they are given less appropriate things; they are given “bad gifts.”

 

This week, I am going to give a paper on “bad gifts” at a conference called “The Ethics of Religious Giving: Historical and Ethnographic Explorations,” at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. “Bad gifts” are things given to monks that are seen as inappropriate. My research for this paper comes from watching and talking with monks and novices in Thailand and Sipsongpannā, a Theravāda Buddhist minority region in southwest China over the last twenty years. While I can’t discuss everything I say in the paper, there are a few points that I found interesting and worth highlighting here.

 

What is a bad gift? At first, I thought this would be a straightforward issue to address. A bad gift is something that Theravāda monastics should not have. Obvious choices for this would be alcohol which the most basic precepts in Buddhism forbid or a gun, which as one monk I spoke with noted “can only be used to kill.” However, there is a surprising amount of difference in what would count as a “bad gift,” depending on who you talk to, the area and how the question is framed. For example, in Thailand monks and novices are forbidden from driving cars and motorcycles and bicycles, but in Sipsongpanna in China, they do drive and ride and at least until recently, a bicycle would be offered by relatives or neighbors when a boy ordains as a novice. In other words, a bicycle is a bad gift in Thailand, but not in China. And of course bicycles are not in the vinaya.

 

What does inappropriate mean? Another question emerges from the way I framed the problem above. If bad gifts are things that are seen as “inappropriate,” what does this mean? Obviously, these would be things that someone says monks shouldn’t have, and presumably this would be because the vinaya says they shouldn’t. Monks can’t drink alcohol according to the vinaya and so beer is not good (though it’s worth noting, I have seen people give alcohol to temples, and monks accept them and have to figure out what to do with this gift). My phrasing comes not from the vinaya but from what Thai monks in particular have said to me when I asked them about bad gifts. They tended to say one of two things: that a given gift or thing is “not appropriate” (mai somkhuan) or “unattractive” (mai suay). The second is particularly striking, because it highlights how monks are often seen/understood as figures who are models for the lay folk. If one were to give cigarettes to a monk, which is not quite forbidden in Thailand, but not encouraged, this would encourage monks to do something that is “unattractive.” Again, this is different in Sipsongpannā, which has been shaped by the cultures of China (where smoking is more common) as well as the Theravāda cultures spread through mainland Southeast Asia. In Sipsongpannā giving cigarettes is not seen as inappropriate.

 

Who decides? For me, this is perhaps the most interesting point. When talking about Buddhist morality, scholars of Buddhism, monks, and lay folk have collectively tended to emphasize the importance of the vinaya, the disciplinary codes of Buddhism. The vinaya is held up as the authority, even when people are not really paying attention to the vinaya. In fact, part of what seems to be taking place is that at least at the margins, what counts as bad gifts are things that lay people decide are inappropriate or unattractive. As monks will tell you, often with a laugh, bicycles, smart phones and cigarettes are not in the vinaya (though as they also say betel is). As a result, people need to think analogically about what works and what doesn’t. I argue in the paper that despite being “below” monks in the religious hierarchy, it is lay people, in conversation with monks, and the vinaya and government authorities, that decide what counts as a good or a bad gift.

On Sabbatical

On Sabbatical

September is almost over, and while most faculty and students at UVM are completing their first month of new classes, I have not stepped foot into a classroom. This is a very strange occurrence for me. Since 2007 I have participated in the “back to school” ritual of planning course readings and assignments, organizing my office, meeting new students, and catching up with advisees. Instead, this semester began with me sitting with my laptop and a stack of books on my front porch, staring out at Mount Ellen and diving into my research and writing. It is wonderful to be able to devote myself entirely to brainstorming new projects, putting the finishing touches on articles (and books) in progress, and catching up with the literature in my scholarly fields.

In the coming months, I plan to keep our blog readers updated on what I am thinking, writing, and reading about during this sabbatical year. I will tell you about the projects I am working on, give brief reviews of books that I am reading that may be of interest to you, and offer a glimpse into how I work—for example, what tools do I use to locate and organize sources, or how do I make sure that I make progress towards my goals without the structure of classes and meetings to help organize my time.

I have ambitious goals for this sabbatical—these include writing grants, finishing chapters, revising articles, and conducting fieldwork. I am hopeful that I will be able to achieve most of them, but I am also willing to follow tangents and new directions that emerge out of my reading, writing, and conversations with others to see where they take me. Such is the nature of scholarly inquiry—to seek answers to questions that more often lead to new questions rather than definitive conclusions. I am grateful that the sabbatical provides me with the time to pursue some of these lines of investigation to see where they take me. I look forward to sharing this discovery with you.