So you thought Vyasa was before Valmiki, Mahabharat was before Ramayan, Rama a Vishnu avatar, and tantrism distinct from vedism? Think again. In Shodasi: Secrets of the Ramayana, Telugu poet Seshendra Sharma re-reads the Ramayan to come up with a number of new conclusions.
Much of the book sets out to prove that Ramayan was written before the Mahabharat. Sharma discusses how Indra is cited more often than Vishnu, thus placing the context of the Ramayan closer to Vedic than Puranic thought. He quotes from the Mahabharat to show how it follows descriptions of hills, rivers from the Ramayan. The Mahabharat has some prose, and therefore, it must have been composed after Ramayan, which is entirely in poetry. These are only some of the numerous reasons that Sharma offers to suggest a new sequence of our itihasas.
Sharma’s book is also an experimental reading of the Ramayan through the interpretive lens of what he calls Kundalini yoga. Hanuman’s flight to Sri Lanka gets a new interpretation. “Charana Charite Patti” is interpreted as the path of Kundalini, and the first verse of the Sundara Kanda “Tatho Ravana Nithayah” is interpreted by Sharma to refer to Hanuman traversing the sushumna nadi of the Kundalini.
Trijata’s dream becomes the Gayatri mantra through an imaginative recasting of words as numbers. Gaja (elephant) means eight, danta (teeth) means thirty-two, and maha-gaja-chaturdantam somehow also adds up to 32 syllables, which is the number of syllables in the Gayatri mantra. That Trijata’s dream is halfway through the Ramayan also becomes significant for Sharma, he calls it the ‘central bead’ in the Ramayan garland of 24,000 beads. Identifying 32-syllables as the Gayatri follows a convention, for mantras are referenced by the number of syllables; however, it is the “secret” yogartha—or mystical, anagogical translations—derived by Sharma that becomes problematic, unless he is considered an authority in his own right.
Sharma goes through an elaborate argument to conclude that the name Sundarakand is unrelated to any descriptions of beauty of any of the main characters in the Ramayan. However, Soundarya and Tripura-Sundari are well-known conventions in the tantric tradition and hence, Sharma concludes that Sundarakand derives its name from Shakti’s beauty, and “Sundara-Hanuman” means “Hanuman who is a devotee of Devi” (117).
A coda in this book is about the benedictory verse in Kalidasa’s Sakuntalam which has traditionally been understood to refer to Ishwara. Sharma re-interprets this verse highlighting the “eight forms” of the last line as the eight forms of Devi that please Ishwara.
This book is suitable for a reader who is Sanskrit-literate and open to eclectic yogarthas and connotative meanings. Sharma cites substantially from the Ramayan in roman but without diacritics, this is difficult to follow; and he does not always include translation. Sharma often cites commentators without citing names and sources. It is not clear why the book is called Shodasi—readers may note, this book is not about the Srividya tradition. Even if the reader is unconvinced by Sharma’s reasoning or methodology, the free flow of references may prove absorbing for a reader interested in the subject.
This could also be an eclectic reference for a scholar researching tantric elements in the Ramayan.