'Ramayana Vishavruksham', meaning 'Ramayana, the poisonous tree', is a Marxist critique but based entirely on Valimiki's Ramayana. It proceeds in the same order as that of the Sanskrit original: Balakanda, Ayodhyakanda, Aranyakanda, Kishkindhakanda, Yuddhakanda, Sundarakanda and Uttarakanda. While Valmiki's Ramayana is of seven volumes/parts, Ranganayakamma's 'Ramayana Vishavruksham' is in three volumes/parts each volume running about 700 pages. Similarly while Valmiki Ramayana is composed of about 2,400 slokas (poems), Ramayana Vishavruksham is composed of 16 long-stories accompanied by 11 links (narratives that 'link' the stories) and about 600 foot notes that show evidence from the Sanskrit original in support of the critique.
Ranganayakamma followed the two original Sanskrit versions which are printed in Telugu script accompanied by 'prati padardha' (word for word meanings), 'tatparya' (summary) and 'tika' (commentary) by Gattupalli Seshacharyulu and Chadaluvada Sundara Rama Sastrulu and published by Shashilekha Mudrakshara Sala of Chennai and Vavilla Ramasastulu and sons of Chennai respectively during the period 1900-1955.
Besides the main text-components, Ramayana Vishavruksham has long prefaces (in volumes 1 & 2) and a long post-script (in volume 3). The three volumes appeared in three consecutive years: 1974, 1975 and 1976 and have been reprinted several times (volume 1 for 7 times, volume 2 for 6 times and volume 3 for 4 times so far (by early 2000).
The introduction to vol. 1 runs about 175 pages and narrates the process of evolution of human society from 'primitive' (-communist) stage to the future/possible-communist) stage. 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 establish intermediate links between the nature of economy and the culture in a given stage of society in general and in Ramayana in particular. This makes her work a Marxist critique.
It is interesting to note that considerable number of readers turned to Marxism after reading this long preface which explained exploitation of labour and other related concepts of Marxism in a very easily understandable manner: so easy a manner that even an average literate worker or a house-wife could understand the concept of exploitation f labour.
The first volume has three stories and two 'link' narrations. The writer selected certain important events and presented them in the form of stories. She presented other not-so-important events by way of 'links', which took the form of 'general narration'.
The first story in the first volume is titled 'This is Ramayana!' The story begins with Vishwamitra's visit to Dasaratha for taking Rama and Lakshmana along with him with an intention to kill Tataki. Tataki, according to Valimiki is a 'rakshasha' woman (demon) who obstructs the sacrificial activities of the sages. The questions, which Vishwamitra puts to Dasaratha, according to the writer, show in a striking manner a particular social set up. He puts 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 shudras do rites and rituals? Are wives obedient and subservient to husbands? Sons to fathers? People to the king?"
This story ends with killing of Tataki 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, apart from many other things about Vishwamitra, Dasaratha and Janaka, we find Rama's marriage with Sita.
The second story "Throne at the mercy of the shoes" exposes how Rama dishonestly aspires for the throne to which he is not entitled as per confessions of Dasaratha. Rama tries to collude with his father for coronation. But due to Kaikayi's assertion of her right, Rama goes to the forest accompanied by Sita and Lakshmana. While in forest, Rama expresses 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 Ayodhyakanda in Valmiki Ramayana to know how disobedient Rama is to Dasaratha.
Rama's inquiries, about Ayodhya when Bharatha visits for his 'paadukaas' (wooden shoes), represent the total feudal ideas of Rama and Ramayana. The writer asks her readers to see 79 slokas in the 100th sarga (chapter) of Ayodhyakanda in support of her observation. This story ends with Bharata taking Rama's 'paadukaas', keeping them on the throne and ruling Ayodhya as a custodian of the shoes.
The second 'link' that follows the second story is a short narration of mythical supernatural powers of characters like Anasuya, Viradha and Agasthya appear.
The third story "It just happened like this!" depicts the cruel treatment of Shurpanakha by Rama and Lakshmana. After Lakshmana cuts her nose and ears, under the instructions of Rama, Shurpanakha tells them that people in future would read Rama's brutal history on her face and thus the story ends.
As in the first volume, the preface to the second volume too runs about 170 pages. But, it discusses various questions like 'myth and reality' in Ramayana, the nature of so-called 'Prakshiptas' (interpolations), reflections of society in the text of Ramayana, different responses from the readers and reviewers to the first volume.
While discussing myth and reality in Ramayana, Ranganayakamma pointed out that some scholars (e.g., Tripuraneni Ramaswamy) took Valmiki's descriptions literally and started arguing about the length of the ocean which Hanuman crossed and so on. Her explanation is that we have to understand myth in terms of humans' understanding of nature and its forces. Regarding Prakshiptas, she argued that assuming that there are many interpolations (additions by others subsequent to Valmiki) the social essence of Ramayana remains the same despite the interpolations.
In one of the sections of her preface to this volume, Ranganayakamma exposed the fallacious arguments of Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao, who reviewed the first volume in a weekly magazine. The reviewer observed that Ramayana is neither literature nor is it useful for examining the then existing society. Ranganayakamma argued at length that Ramayana is also a kind of literature that was composed at a time when humanity was in its 'historical childhood' (borrowing Marx's expression referring to Greek mythology) and one can see the nature of society through many 'intermediate links' (borrowing Anatoloy Lunacharsky's expression) like the 'ideas and values' as expressed in the text. In this connection, Ranganayakamma cited and applied observations of Marx (on Greek epics) and Lunacharsky (Theses on Marxist literature criticism) to Ramayana.
At the end of the preface and before the main text, Ranganayakamma gave some excerpts from reviews and also from the published and unpublished letters on volume 1. She clarified doubts and answered negative comments.
The main text begins with Link-3 in which Shurpanakha goes first to Khara, her cousin brother and Khara goes and fight with Rama and Rama kills Khara and his army of demons.
Story No.4 'Greater than that Guy" 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 this story depicts how Jatayu tries to resist Ravana while abducting Sita.
The title of the fifth story "Did she heed my advice?" tells the attitude of Rama to abduction of Sita by Rama. 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 his last words about the abduction of Sita by Ravana and cremates him as per his desire.
In 'link-5', the writer narrates the incidents connected with Kabandha who tells about Sugriva and Shabari who offers fruits to Rama and Lakshmana.
Story No. 6, "The Sex Maniac" 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 "Collaborative Thieves" exposes the way in which Rama colludes with Sugriva and kills Vali so that Sugriva becomes the king and helps Rama in searching Sita.
The eighth story (The Real Face of the Friendship!) describes the nature of the friendship that Rama has with Sugriva. Lakshmana goes to Sugriva, severely criticizes him, reminds him of the promise to help Rama in searching for Sita.
The sixth link narrates the beginning of 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 Ashoka forest and his conversation with Sita. (In Telugu language, there is a compound word 'Sitaramulu' meaning 'Sita and Rama' and this is very frequent. 'Sitaravanulu' is never used but the writer used it in a humorous manner.)
The seventh link narrates Hanuman's destruction and burning of Lanka.
The tenth story (Pennyless present) is reporting of Hanuman about Sita and Lanka to Rama. After hearing Hanuman's narration, Rama publicly announces that he would give Hanuman a present. All people look with suspense and curiousity as to what would be the present but Rama hugs Hanuman and says hugging itself is his present to Hanuman.
The third volume starts with the story (No.11) "How good am I and how many hardships do I face?" This story 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 expels him from the kingdom. The two thieves, according to Ranganayakamma, are Rama and Sugriva while Vibhushana is the third one.
The link that follows the twelfth story is a narration of constructing a passage/bridge over the sea by Vanaras.
In the thirteenth story "Has Rama passes away?", Ravana and his women-servants tell Sita that Rama was defeated and died in the war. But when Sarama, Vibhushana's wife, tells the fact, Sita feels happy.
The link (No. 9) that follows the thirteenth story is a lengthy narration (running about 180 pages) of the battle between Rama and Ravana, killing of Ravana and coronation of Vibhushana in the place of Ravana.
In the 14th story "The public controversy", Rama asks Sita to prove her "chastity" by entering into 'fire'. The writer used the word "Panchayiti" in the Telugu version and it comes originally from a dialect and it means a trial conducted by the elders of a given community whenever a controversy arises.
Link (No.10) is a short narration of Rama's departure of Lanka to proceed to Ayodhya.
The 15th story ("Rama in the place of shoes") depicts the coronation of Rama as king. In other words, Rama sits on the throne in the place of his shoes, which Bharata kept earlier.
'Link' (No.11) is a brief narration of praises of sages for Rama for becoming King.
The last story (No.16) 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 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 are beggars 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, four chapters follow. The first chapter (What are the advantages if we read Ramayana?) exposes the fallacy of the notion that people fulfill their wishes if they read Ramayana. The second chapter evaluates "Valmiki as poet". The third chapter is a collection of
Ranganayakamma's critical review of six famous critics of Ramayana (except one all in Telugu) and shortcomings in their approaches. The last chapter (Why should we reject the culture of Ramayana?) emphasizes that we should reject Ramayana because it supports rulers against the 'ruled', the rich against the poor, 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.