ISSUE #014 - May 07, 2019

Somatic Salvation & Caste Elevation in the Name of Ram

Dr. Katy Jane

“Look at the miracle of God (Ram),” the Dunagiri village girls sang, “how he can be within you and also within me! See how he has penetrated every atom of existence,” they continued as they celebrated the recent re-telling of Ram’s story (Tulsidas’ Ramcaritmanas) here in the northeastern Himalayan hills.

The belief in the omnipresence of God is central to Tulsidas’ message of Ram—how he could be in both me and in you, even if you possess a body deemed impure by caste. In fact, though the author arose from (and upheld) a society that delineated bodies according to their degree of purity, the name of Ram alone is sufficient to cleanse and raise one up.

Tulsidas himself received the Ramcaritmanas from a leper—who was none other than the “son of the wind god,” Hanuman. When Tulsidas recognized the outcasted leper, he fell to his feet and Hanuman agreed to reveal the vision of Ram through the unfolding of his story. Tulsidas was advised to write Ram’s tale as Hanuman channeled it to him—not in the pure language of Sanskrit, but in Avadhi, the language of commoners.

For the first time in the post-Vedic period, a work written in a “polluted” (prakṛt) language was elevated to divine status. In the 16th century, the Ramcaritamanas became on par with the Vedas—a revealed word that has the power to purify even the worst sinner. And yet as a brahmin, Tulsidas’ Ramcaritmanas reinforced the parameters of Vedic caste and gender inequality.

Ram may be within you and me, but some bodies are impure—untouchable. Yet Tulsdias’ Ramcaritmanas is also a text that has historically allowed for the renegotiation of somatic impurity. He states “even though my body is devoid of intelligence (and is impure),” just by remembering Hanuman’s devotion to Ram one can be cleansed.

Perhaps in no time during the history of India since Tulsidas’ time has anyone taken the physically redemptive power of Ram’s name—the entire essence of his sacred narrative in seed syllable form—as literally as the Ramnamis of central India. By inscribing the name of Ram on the body, it elevated an entire community of untouchables out of untouchability.

Ramnami, meaning “devoted to the name of Ram,” refers to a group of harijans (formerly “untouchables”) whom I encountered by chance while conducting my doctoral research in Madhya Pradesh. These people express their devotion to their chosen expression of God, Lord Ram, by tattooing his name in the Sanskrit script, devanāgarī, all over their bodies. They print it on the fabric of the clothes they wear. The walls in their homes are covered with God’s name. And they keep their mind solely focused on the Divine by continuously repeating, “Ram, Ram.”

In these ways, they saturate themselves with the presence of God—from skin to soul. The miracle of Ram’s omnipresence is embodied everywhere.

This practice is in imitation of Lord Ram’s best devotee, Hanuman, who when questioned if he really had any faith in God, tore open his chest to reveal the name of Ram permanently etched on his heart.

Likewise these villagers believe that by tattooing their entire bodies with the letters of Ram’s name, they become one with him. This is, in part, due to the geometric energy of the Sanskrit letters written in the devanāgarī script—which is sacrosanct. It is the container of divinity—the embodied universe in sacred geometry.

Devanāgarī—“divine” (deva) and “city” (nāgarī)—refers to one of the systems used to write down the oral Sanskrit syllables. It translates as “city of the gods,” or more loosely, “the container of divine light.” Because of its precision, beauty, and depth, the Vedic sages believed Sanskrit did not evolve out of ordinary human experience, but was the very speech of the gods or “beings of light” (deva/devī). It’s the language with which the laws of nature and highly enlightened yogis communicate with each other and which describes the divine design of the cosmos itself.

The Sanskrit characters written in devanāgarī are, therefore, the outer symbols that express the intercommunication between human and divine. In the ancient days, devanāgarī adorned temple walls to attract the gods to earth as well as to inspire humans toward their unified nature. This is why devanāgarī is also called “divine temple writing.” It’s a kind of sacred graffiti.

Yet while Ram may be everywhere and in everything, it’s sacrilege to tattoo the name of Ram in sacred devanāgarī on the impure body. Tulsidas made the distinction between the pure name of Ram and the impurity of his body when he rejected his wife and became a sādhu. He had been obsessed with her until she admonished him that if he desired Ram as much as he was attached to her “filthy and polluted body,” he’d become a great saint.

He took her up on it and devoted himself to the purity of the name—that those considered to be the most impure members of Hindu society, the Ramnamis, liberally tattoo all over their unclean bodies.

Yet it was this act of inscribing the name of Ram that has changed the social and political status of the Ramnami community. Beginning in the 1890s, the Ramnami Samaj spread as an organization for social change through the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. At first the community of untouchables tattooed the name of Ram on their bodies as both an act of devotion and rejection of high caste oppression.

But then over the past century, the tattooed bodies have led to wide-scale literacy in the area. It began first with being able to read the name of Ram on the body, then memorizing the oral recitation of the Ramcaritmanas, to being able to interpret and rewrite those sections that blatantly advocated caste and gender inequality.

Literacy elevated the community. Having risen above untouchability by altering their bodies, the Ramnamis no longer practice tattooing the name of Ram. They have attained the omniscience of Ram and entered the mainstream.


ISSUE #014

On Somatic Healing & Social Justice
Image: On Somatic Healing & Social Justice

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