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 A Synopsis of

 'Ramayana, the Poisonous Tree'

'Ramayana, the poisonous tree' is the English translation of the Telugu original, ‘Ramayana Vishavruksham’, which appeared in three volumes in three consecutive years: 1974, 1975 & 1976. Since then all the three volumes have undergone several reprints: the first volume seven times, the second one for six times and the third four times. Now all the three volumes have been brought out in a single volume in English. Ramayana, the Poisonous Tree is a critique based entirely on Valimiki's Ramayana. It proceeds in the same order as that of the Sanskrit original: Bala kanda, Ayodhya kanda, Aranya kanda, Kishkindha kanda, Yuddha kanda, Sundara kanda and Uttara kanda. While Valmiki’s Ramayana is composed of about 24,000 slokas (poems), ‘Ramayana, the Poisonous Tree’ consists of 16 stories accompanied by 11 links (narratives that 'link' the stories) and 504 foot notes that show evidence from the Sanskrit original in support of the critique.

The Poisonous Tree consists of four parts. Part one: Preface. Part two: Stories, links, foot notes and essays. Part four: Some earlier critics of Ramayana. Part four: Comments on the Poisonous Tree when the Telugu version first appeared in 1974.

Part 1: The preface, which constitutes part one, narrates the process of evolution of human society from Ancient times to Modern times. It characterizes culture of Ramayana as predominantly feudal in nature with an admixture of the remnants of primitive tribal culture. In her preface and foot notes, Ranganayakamma attempted to outline intermediate links between the nature of economy and the culture in a given stage of society in general and Ramayana in particular.

Part 2 begins with a ‘Prelude’ narrating the beginning of Bala kanda of Valmiki’s Ramayana. The prelude is followed by 16 stories, 11 'link' narrations and 3 essays. The writer selected certain important events and presented them in the form of stories. She presented other events (which could not be presented in the form of stories) by way of 'links', which took the form of 'general narration'.

The first story is titled 'This is Ramayana!' This story begins with Viswamitra's visit to Dasaratha for taking Rama and Lakshmana along with him with an intention to kill Tataka. Tataka, according to Valimiki is a 'Rakshasha' woman (demon) who obstructs the sacrificial activities of the sages. The questions that Viswamitra put to Dasaratha, according to the writer, show in a striking manner a particular social set up. He put questions of this sort: "Are your tributary kings obedient to you? Are you doing 'yagnas' and 'yagas' (sacrificial rites) ? Are you offering charity to Brahmins? Are you keeping warriors and scholars under your control by giving them awards? I hope that caste admixture is not taking place? Are you sure that Brahmins are not making Sudras perform rites and rituals? Are wives obedient and subservient to husbands? Sons to fathers? People to the king?" This story ends with killing of Tataka by Rama and eulogizing of Rama by 'rishis' ('sages') as 'avatar' (incarnation/embodiment of God).

The first story is followed by a narration that links the first story and the second story. In this link-1, apart from many other things about Viswamitra, Dasaratha and Janaka, we find Rama's marriage with Sita.

The second story, "A Throne at the Mercy of the Sandals", exposes how Rama dishonestly aspired for the throne to which he was not entitled as per confessions of Dasaratha. Rama tried to collude with his father for coronation. But due to Kaikayi's assertion of her right, Rama went to the forest accompanied by Sita and Lakshmana.  While he was in the forest, Rama expressed his dissatisfaction and anger against his father for sending him to the forest. The writer, at this juncture, draws the attention of her readers to 35 slokas (poems) in 53rd sarga (chapter) of Ayodhya kanda in Valmiki’s Ramayana to know how disobedient Rama was to Dasaratha. Rama's inquiries about Ayodhya when Bharatha visited him in Chitrakuta represent the total feudal ideas of Rama and Ramayana. The writer asks her readers to see 79 slokas in the 100th sarga (chapter) of Ayodhya kanda in support of her observations. This story ends with Bharata taking Rama's sandals, keeping them on the throne and ruling Ayodhya as a custodian of the sandals.

The second 'link' that follows the second story is a short narration of mythical supernatural powers of characters like Anasuya, Viradha and Agastya appear.

The third story, "This is How it Happened!", depicts the cruel treatment of Surpanakha by Rama and Lakshmana. After Lakshmana cuts her nose and ears, under the instructions of Rama, Surpanakha tells them that people in future would read Rama's brutal history on her face and thus the story ends.

In Link-3, Surpanakha goes first to Khara, her cousin brother and Khara goes and fight with Rama and Rama kills Khara and his army of demons.

Story 4, 'Greater Guy than the Other", means that Ravana is ‘greater’ than Rama in humiliating women in the sense that he abducted Sita in a false disguise and with the help of Maricha.

Link-4 that follows the fourth story depicts how Jatayu tries to resist Ravana while abducting Sita.

The title of the fifth story, "Did She Heed?", tells the attitude of Rama to the abduction of Sita by Ravana. Rama thinks Ravana would not have abducted Sita, had she remained in Ayodhya following his advice. In this story, Rama and Lakshmana find Jatayu in a near-death condition, listen to his last words about the abduction of Sita by Ravana and cremate him as per his desire.

In 'link-5', the writer narrates the incidents connected with Kabandha who tells about Sugriva and Sabari who offers fruits to Rama and Lakshmana.

Story 6, "The Sex Pundit", is an ironical reproduction of Valmiki's description of Rama's sexual desires in the absence of Sita in the surroundings of the lake 'Pampa'.

The seventh story, "The Accomplices", exposes the way in which Rama colludes with Sugriva and kills Vali deceitfully so that Sugriva becomes the king and helps Rama in searching for Sita.

The eighth story, “The True Colours of the Friendship!”, describes the nature of the friendship that Rama has with Sugriva. Lakshmana goes to Sugriva, severely criticizes him, and reminds him of the promise to help Rama in searching for Sita.

The sixth link narrates the beginning of the search for Sita by the men of Sugriva.

The ninth story, “Sita and Ravana”, depicts the conversation between Sita and Ravana and Hanuman's secret entry into Ravana’s garden, Asokam and his conversation with Sita.

The seventh link narrates Hanuman's destruction and burning of Lanka, when innocent women and children were burnt alive.

The tenth story, “The Gift that didn’t cost a Penny!”, is a report of Hanuman about Sita and Lanka to Rama. After hearing Hanuman's narration, Rama publicly announces that he would give Hanuman a gift. All people look with suspense and curiousity as to what would be the gift but Rama hugs Hanuman and says hugging itself is his gift to Hanuman.

Story 11, "How good I am! How many hardships I face!", depicts how Rama is dependent on Sugriva and his armies to wage war on Ravana. Rama appears to be worried about the war.

The twelfth story, "The Third Thief”, depicts how Vibhushana, brother of Ravana is inclined towards Rama and finally joins Rama when Ravana banishes him from the kingdom. The two thieves, according to Ranganayakamma, are Rama and Sugriva while Vibhushana is the third one.

Link-8 that follows the twelfth story is a narration of constructing a ‘bridge’ over the sea by the Vanaras.

In the thirteenth story, "Has Rama Passed Away?", Ravana and his women-servants tell Sita that Rama was defeated and killed in the war. But when Sarama, Vibhushana's wife, tells the fact, Sita feels happy.

Link-9 that follows the thirteenth story is a lengthy narration of the battle between Rama and Ravana, killing of Ravana and coronation of Vibhushana in the place of Ravana.

In the fourteenth story, "The Public Trial", Rama asks Sita to prove her "chastity" by entering into 'fire' since she lived in the custody of Ravana.

The tenth Link is a short narration of Rama's departure of Lanka to proceed to Ayodhya.

The fifteenth story, "Rama in the place of Sandals", depicts the coronation of Rama as the king of Kosala. In other words, Rama sits on the throne in the place of his Sandals, which Bharata kept earlier.

Link-11 is a brief narration of praises of sages for Rama for becoming King.

The last story “The Beauty of Rama Rajya” exposes the false notion of Rama's rule, which assured justice to all, even to a dog.  A dog, hit by a beggar when it barked at him without moving from his way, goes to Rama and complains against the beggar. Rama does justice to the dog. The writer draws the attention of the readers to the fact that there were beggars in Rama’s kingdom and hence poverty. She also exposes Rama's desire for imperial expansion by means of conquering other kingdoms. The story ends with the demise of Rama at his old age.

After the last story, three essays follow. The first essay, “What are the benefits of reading and listening to Ramayana?”, exposes the fallacy of the notion that people fulfill their wishes if they read Ramayana. The second essay, evaluates "Valmiki as a poet". She observed that Valmiki was a poet who composed Ramayana at a time when arts like story telling and writing (literature) were still in their infancy. According to her, all the mistakes that possibly occur in the writings of historical childhood are present in Valmiki’s writing. The third essay, “Why should we reject the culture of the Ramayana?”, emphasizes that we should reject Ramayana because it supports rulers against the 'ruled', the rich against the poor, superstitious beliefs against rational thinking, the upper castes against lower castes, the civilized non-tribal communities against primitive tribal communities, male chauvinism against women, father's domination over sons, elder brother's domination over younger brother and so on. Ranganayakamma observes that Ramayana is a symbol of feudal culture in India.

Part 3: In this part the writer reviewed the criticism of Ramayana by eight earlier scholars including Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy. She made the following concluding remarks on the critics. “The critics who made scathing attack on the wrong doings of an Aryan king paid homage to the Dravidian king. The critics who projected Brahmins as culprits acquitted kings as innocents. The critics who wanted to rescue women from the domination of their husbands kept those women under the domination of other men.”

Part 4: This part contains some positive and negative Comments on Ramayana, the Poisonous Tree when the Telugu version first appeared in 1974.

This book also has an Index of names and themes found in the Ramayana.


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