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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2013



Dr. Satish Kumar Harit
Ms. Charulata Verma

The Great Pool of Ramayana Tradition : Its Open Borders and Hybridity

Rāmāyanam anantakam
(Numerous are versions of Ramayana)
-Bhusundi Ramayana

Rāmkathā Kai miti jaga nāhi
(Saga of Rama knows no limits in the world)
- Rāmcharitmānas (I. 32 [3])

“Versions of Ramayana reflect perspectives of periods of composition.”
- Romila Thapar, a lecture delivered    at Auroville in Puducherry during the Ramayana Festival, Feb. 17, 2011

Similarly, Murari and Jayadeva, the playwrights of nineth and twelfth century put the question in the prologue to their well-known plays Anargha-rāghava and Prasanna-rāghava : “Wherefore this taking up of Rama as the theme again and again?” and answer acknowledging the nectarean role and diffusion of the glory and grace of the Ramayana: “Where else could poets get a hero endowed with such qualities and how else could their literary gifts fulfill themselves than by dwelling on such a character?”
Anargha rāghava I. 9
Prasanna rāghava I. 12

T.S. Eliot expresses a profound and pregnant perception when he says: “a poem is understood before it is read.” It is true for us Indians, especially about work like the epic Ramayana that “bewitched and hypnotized” (Kapila Vatsyayan) generations of Asians belonging to countries with different religious, literary and cultural traditions. These literary narratives and transfigurations undergoing major and minor changes, sometimes in actual opposition to the ways in which the story has previously been told, carry socio-cultural experiences and values endowed with a universality that transcends both time and space. The different versions of the Ramayana represent the articulation of different communities and reflection of alternate perceptions that exist in society.

Many additions were made to Valmiki's Ramayana in a span of 800 years from 400 BC to AD 400. Paula Richman and A.K.Ramanujan does not regard it as Ur-text, the edifying tale of this outstanding Indian classic has become the “grammar of human relationships” and Rama a “byword with religious and spiritual mantra-like overtones amongst the illiterate populace…”(Raghavan Preface). A.A. Macdonell in the “Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics” acknowledges that probably no work of world literature has ever produced so profound an influence on the life and thought of a people as the Ramayana. Buddhist, Jain and some of the other versions have questioned it by narrating their own versions, sometimes even with contesting voices. 

Romila Thapar calls attention to the plurality of Ramayana tradition in Indian history : “The Ramayana does not belong to any one moment in history for it has its own history which lies embedded in the many versions which were woven around the theme at different times and places” (74). Not only do variants of Ramayana exist, each relates to the other, each Ramayana text reflects the social location and ideology of those who appropriate it. The appropriation of the story by a multiplicity of groups meant a multiplicity of versions through which the social aspirations and ideological concerns of each group were articulated. The story in these versions included significant variations which changed the conceptualization of character, event and meaning.

Ramayana is not a mere text located somewhere in the distant past but a great and glorious haunting inter-cultural communication with its contemporary echoes celebrated for its joyous ‘hybridity’ and ‘open borders’.  With its deep and fascinating influence along with a ‘potency of dialogue’ Ramayana has become ‘the lyric of the men of Asia’.  “A literary oeuvre of sweeping majesty, it has gathered a momentum of its own” (Lokesh, RTA 648) manifesting itself in the different forms of art – epic, story, play, ballad, song, oral recitations as well as in sculptures and paintings.  “It has been a force, a movement to translate social patterns and eternity of ideals and to explore realities of human existence.” As Shankar Raju Naidu says, “Adi Kavi Valmiki gave us that reservoir, the Adikavya Ramayana which has helped the great poets and philosophers of the different parts of India and the South East Asia to infuse into it their own superb aspirations and fertile imagination” (Naidu, RTA 315).

The patterns of evolution of the story of the Ramayana in multifarious forms with different motifs and matrixes exhibit that the epic carries a cross-cultural perspective with all its religious associations and submitting itself to transformations, transmutations and adaptations to suit different theological considerations and cultural needs, nourishing on variants that contextualize different world-views by different people in diverse ways. The saga of Rama is ‘multivocal’ encompassing diverse narratives that vary according to religious, regional, social and political context, gender, genre and historical period. Camille Bulcke, a great scholar and authority on Ramayana, counted three hundred versions of Ramayana. The richness of this narrative, which is also its most fascinating and rewarding aspect, results in the open-ended interpretation of Ramayana theme --- as Rama is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu in Hindu mythology, a Bodhisattva in Buddhist tradition and a believer of Islam in Muslim tradition. As A.K.Ramanujan beautifully expresses his contention that the Rama story constitutes a universe so vast that it cannot be defined by a single text or even by a group of texts. Because of this, every interpretation is also a telling and every telling also an interpretation. Even the major incidents of Ramayana, as put by David Shulman in Many Ramayanas, can be seen as nodes of narrative capable of generating different tellings, each pursuing its own logic.

Our epic narratives hold the key to our racial culture and character and are an integration of the stored munificence of racial memory. The glory, grace and good of our civilization emanates from the ideals that the epic Ramayana brings to our constant attention. As Sri Aurobindo writes about the epic: “The Ramayana embodied for the Indian imagination its highest and tenderest human  ideals of character…….and lent a certain divineness to the ordinary things of life by the glow of its ideal hues”. He further says that the work of Valmiki has been an agent of almost incalculable power in the molding of the cultural mind of India.

The names of the characters of Ramayana (Rama, Sita, Dashratha, Janaka, Vashishta, Vishwamitra) are all known in late Vedic literature, however nowhere in the surviving Vedic poetry is there a story similar to the story of Ramayana of Valmiki. Sita, the goddess of agriculture finds place in Rigveda as well as in all the Vedic literature. In Tettariya Brahmin of Krishna Yajurveda there is the story of Sita-Savitri where Sita and Shraddha are referred to as the daughters of Prajapati or Sun.  Although, the general background of the Ramayana is one of the post-urbanization of the eastern part of North India, some cultural evidences suggest that the Ramayana predates the Mahabharata. In addition, Mahabharata has several references to the characters and episodes of the Ramayana and a subsection of its third book (Vana) called Ramopakhyana carries a long narrative of the whole story of Rama in about twenty chapters.           The Upanishads are also suffused with Rama worship and Ramabhakti, as they project Rama as param-purusha and Sita as mulaprakriti. Some of the sectarian Upanishads (as that of Ramanuja sect) such as Ramapurvatapaniya, Ramottaratapaniya and Ramarahasyopanisad are fine examples of Rama worship. Rama legend also forms a significant part of our Puranic literature---Visnu, Brahmanda, VayuBhagavata, Kurma, Agni, Narada, Brahma, Garuda, Skanda, Padma Purana along with some of the subordinate puranas. Sectarian influence is also found in some of the Saiva and Sakta puranas where Rama is depicted as a great devotee of Siva or Devi and Sita is described as born from the womb of Mandodari (DeviMahabhagavata ch. 42-64). The Yogavasistha or the Vasistha Ramayana, divided into six prakaranas—the vauagya, mumuksu, utpatti, sthiti, upasana and nirvana—is principally a dialogue between Vashistha and Rama full of the tenets of Advaita Vedanta and an explanation of the primary means for acquiring final emancipation.     

As devotion to Rama evolved in the later centuries attempts were made to adapt the saga of Rama in the mold of devotion. Adhyatma Ramayana, Anand Ramayana and Adbhut Ramayana are the major sectarian Ramayanas to propagate Rambhakti. Adhyatma Ramayana, written approximately in AD 14th or 15th, is highly respected by the followers of Ramanujan Sect and is one of the sources of Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas. It made a significant contribution in the development of devotion for Rama. Adhyatma Ramayana’s primary aim was to reinterpret the story of Rama in the light of Vedanta Darshan and propagate Rambhakti based on it.  Adbhut Ramayana glorifies Sita as sakti or Durga who slained the hundred headed Ravana and extols Sita by reciting her thousand names known as Sita Sahasranama.

Jacobi and Keith, modern historians of Sanskrit literature consider Ramayana as the precursor of all homogeneous and artificial poems and further state that its language and verse technique deeply affected the whole of the history of the kavya. Ram bhakti gave a further fillip to such an extent that different versions of Ramayana such as Bhusundi Ramyana, Maha Ramayana, Hanumatsamhita, Sangeeta Raghunandan associated Valmiki’s Rama with Krishna saga, showing Rama and Sita engrossed in their Raslila. In Hanumatsamhita, Sita creates 18108 beautiful women from her body and Rama assumes similar forms to perform Raslila with each other.

The theme, the language and metre delineated in Ramayana by Valmiki inspired the generations of Sanskrit scholars to come out with their own epic poetry. Ramayana became the source of inspiration and a model of imitation and Valmiki the poets’ poet. There is a long delineation of Ramcharita in six cantos (sarga) in Kalidasa’s Raghuvansa.  Similarly Ravanavaha or Setubandha (AD 550-600) is a long figurative description of this famous lore in close imitation of Valmiki’s Yuddhakanda in fifteen cantos. Bhattikavya or Ravanavadha (AD 500-650) besides being a treatise on the rules of grammar, widely covers Valmiki’s first six kanda in its 22 cantos. Janakiharana (AD 800), similarly, based on the first six cantos of Ramayana, is a long description of divine love in twenty cantos. Ramayanamanjari and Dasavatarcharita (AD 11th C) by Kshemendra, a well known literary figure of Kashmir, delineates Ramkatha in a new perspective from the viewpoint of Ravana, encompassing the tapa of Ravana, the granting of boon as well as his cruelty.

There is a long tradition of writing plays on Rama in the ancient times but most of them are unavailable. ChhalitaRam, Ramananda, Pratimanataka, Maithilikalyana, Dutangada, UnmattaRaghva are some of the early plays dealing with the saga of Rama. Mahaviracharita and UttaraRamcharita contributed by renowned scholar Bhavbhuti, at the court of Kannauj in 8th BC extensively covers the story of Ramayana from the wedding of Ram and Sita to Ram’s coronation with certain deviations encompassing – the meeting of Ram and Sita for the first time at the ashram of Viswamitra, and Surpanaka arriving at Mithila in the guise of Manthara with a forged letter by Kaikeyi resulting in Ram’s exile to forest at once.

The remarkable deviations one comes across in UttarRamcharita are the banishment of Sita to forest after listening the story from Durmukh and in the last part of the play being a description of a Valmiki play staged in the ashram of Valmiki in front of Rama and the common public of Ayodhya witnessing the birth story of Lav-Kush and finally Bhavbhuti, giving it a happy ending, projects a happy reunion of the couple. One also comes across some of the significant changes introduced by Anangaharsh Mayuraj in Udattraghava, written around AD 8th,  as various demons in the guise of Hanumana, Narada, Sita and Sumantra try to deceive Ram by providing false reports to him but their plot fails at the critical moment. An interesting addition to the saga of Rama was introduced by Murari also in his Anargha-raghava in AD 900 that Shaushakala, Ravana’s envoy tries to seek the hand of Sita on behalf of Ravana at Mithila.       

Mahanataka or Hanumannataka (AD 10th) was probably used to be recited during travels. There is a long description of Ram and Sita’s intercourse to the extent of vulgarization. Hanuman is considered  here as an incarnation of Rudra and what is significant that Lakshmana also accompanies Ram to kill Mayamriga after drawing a protection line from his bow for the safety of Sita. Ashcharyachudamani by a south Indian writer Shaktibhadra, refers to a miraculous chudamani gifted to Rama and Sita by Rishis as a blessing, the touch of which makes false demons to come out with their original being. There are also some plays known as Slesha kavya, Niti kavya and Vilom kavya such as Ramcharita by Sandhyakar Nandi. The outstanding feature of Sanniti Ramayana by a poet Ram is that the first line of every sloka has a moral lesson.

There are some remarkable works exploring the saga of Rama and Sita undergoing transmutations and transfigurations in various ways such as Brihatkatha by Gunadya ( 1st BC), Vasudevahindi of Jain sect (AD 5th), Kathasaritsagar by Somedeva and BrihatakathaManjari by Kshemendra. Some of the remarkable features of these works are—for the first time Sita is said to be born in Lanka, there is no reference to the contest regarding the lifting of bow in Sitasvayamvara, Lakshmana kills Ravana, there is a divine and miraculous birth of Kush. The other noticeable narratives are Campu Ramayana by Bhoj king of Vidarbha and Amoghraghava Campu by Diwakar.

Bhatti, a poet from Gujarat, used the story of the Ramayana in his Ravana-Vadha (Bhatti-Kavya) to explain the working of Sanskrit Grammar in AD 6th Rajshekhar, a 9th century philosopher famous for his Kavya Mimamsa, composed a poem Janaki-harana based on Ramayana theme. The theme of Ramayana influenced Sanskrit dramas to a large extent. Bhasa, a predecessor of Kalidasa, composed Pratima Nataka and Abhisekanataka narrating Ramayana story. Bhavabhuti, successor of Kalidasa (AD 8th) wrote Mahavira charita and the Uttara Ramacharita celebrating the saga of Rama in a different way.

It was the immense popularity of Ramayana lore that almost all the religions in India have drawn upon it to help them propagate their doctrines--moral as well as religious--effectively among the masses. Ravana is presented as a very devout Jain and quite virtuous, the only flaw in his character being his passion for Sita and abduction of her. He is a Vidhyadhara king with a human form. Through an episode a rationalistic explanation is provided to Ravana’s being dasagriva or Dasamukh. Kaikeyi’s character is too presented in Jain Ramayana in a new perspective that she wanted to stop Bharata from becoming a monk hence she contrived only to assign him the responsibilities of kingship. The monkeys and monsters become, in Jain tradition, Vidhyadhars i.e. types of human beings possessing superhuman and magical powers acquired through severe austerities. Rama, Lakshmana and Ravana form the eighth set of Baladeva, Vasudeva and Prativasudeva. They enjoy the highest popularity among all the twenty seven heroes in Jain tradition. There is a long list of Jain Ramayanas which celebrate the glory and greatness of Rama in Sanskrit, Prakrit or Apabhramsa language following either of the three major schools of Jain Ramayana tradition – of Vimal Suri, Samghadasa or Gunabhadra. Some of the well known versions of Ram kathas are –  Paumacariyam of Vimala Suri (4th or 5th Century), Vasudevahindi of Samghadasa Gani (5th C.), The Caupannamahapurisacariya version of Silanka (AD 868), Padma- caritam or Padam-purana by Ravisena, Mahapurana of Jinasana, Svayambhu (9th C), Mahapurana by Puspadanta (AD 965-672), Kathakosa of Harisena, Trisastisalakapurusa-carita of Acharya Hemacandra, Sita- Ravana- Kathankam by  Hemacandra and Kahavali of Bhadresva Suri (11th C).

The saga of Rama as narrated in Jain Ramayanas is essentially same as we find in Valmiki Ramayana except for some of the minor variations. Accordingly Rama returns to Ayodhya after his victory over Lanka along with eight thousand queens among whom Sita and three others Prabhavati, Ratinibha and Sridama were the chief ones. Lakshman had sixteen thousand queens, Prthvisundari and eight others being the chief ones among them. According to Jain tradition, it was Lakshman who killed Ravana. Rama, after Lakshmana’s death, renounces his kingdom, practices austerities, obtains perfect knowledge and ultimately attains moksa. Sita, too, takes renunciation leading the path of an Aryika (a Jain ascetic) after Rama abandons her.

Uttarapurana of Gunabhadra and Bhadrasvara’s Kahavali, written in Prakrit, adopts and follows the story of Paumcariya but makes some significant additions to the later story of Rama. Sita’s co-wives poison the mind of Rama stating that Sita still remembers Ravana when they came to know about Sita’s dream, indicating her the birth of two heroic sons to her.  Rama continues to love Sita but after hearing the scandal publicized by the co-wives he orders his senapati to banish Sita into some forest. Rama laments the loss of Sita and makes a search in forest but in vain.  Hemacandra too introduces the picture motif and Rama’s visit to the forest in search of Sita. Rama is an illustrious human hero in Jain Ramayana as there is no place for the avatara doctrine in Jain theology neither do they believe in a divine creator or lord of the creation. Throughout the narrative there is emphasis on Jain doctrines of ahimsa and the law of Karman thus providing a general orientation of Jain atmosphere. Just as the Jain version of the Ramayana project Ram as the propagator of Jain values especially as a follower of Ahimsa (nonviolence), similarly the ideals of Buddhism and its emphasis on the impermanence of life were crafted beautifully into the Buddhist version of Ramayana.                             

The saga of Ramayana runs parallel to the indigenous cultural patterns of the people in different parts of the country. S. Shankar Raju Naidu says the later authors took great liberties with  the architectonics of the Ramayana. The earliest of Sangam Tamil literature Ettuttohai (a collection of eight works), Pattuppattu (Ten Idylls) and Patinenkil- Kanakku (eighteen minor  works bearing moral lessons) dating back to pre-Christian era sings of the glory of Rama, but the Ramayana Lore has been profusely and reverentially referred to in the Aimperukappiyangal, the five great epics, particularly Silappadikaram, a monumental epic by Ilangovadikal of about the AD 2nd. Later the Alwars (Vaisnava Saints) and Nayanars (Saiva Saints) profusely sang the glory of Rama and Sita.

It was against this background that Kamban appeared on the scene in AD 12th century. Kamban’s Iramavataram commonly known as Kambaramayanam  or Ramavatara has been acclaimed to be the greatest epic of Tamil literature. V.V.S.Iyer regards this saga as an exemplary work on Ramayana lore, similarly Justic S. Maharajan opines – “Kamban’s great poetry keeps its hold firmly on the centuries, because he gives poetic articulation to those timeless problems which arise at all times and the answers to which will continue to fascinate the spirit of Man till the end of time.” In Valmiki’s Ramayana, the character of Rama is not that of a God, but in Kamban, who composed his epic under the influence of Tamil Bhakti, he is clearly a God, with a mission to root out evil and sustain the good. Although Valmiki’s Ramayana is the main source of Kamba Ramayana but there are certain deviations from it. Among such deviations, the most striking is the delineation of the pre-marital love of Rama and Sita which is not found in Valmiki’s Ramayana. Kamban wants to avoid Sita being physically touched by Ravana and consequently tells that Ravana uproots the very hut where Sita was staying. According to Kamba Ramayana, Rama and Sita see each other before the archery contest and they fall in love with each other at the first sight. Again when Surpanakha, Ravana’s sister, attempts to win Rama’s love in the forest, Kamban makes her appear in the guise of a beautiful maiden. Similarly Vibhisana narrates the story of Narsinghavatar to Ravana beseeching him not to indulge in fight with Rama. He projects Rama and Sita as incarnations of Lord Visnu and Goddess Laksmi respectively.

Some of the major Telugu Ramayanas are Ranganatha Ramayanam, Bhaskar Ramayanam, Katta Varadaraju Ramayana and Molla Ramayana. Bhaskara and Molla Ramayanam are written in the form of campus (a medley of poetry and prose) while the others are written in the metre of dvipada. Ranganatha Ramayanam, written around AD 1240 is the first complete Ramayana written in indigenous dvipada. A part of this poem is sung during the enactment of popular shadow play known as Tolubommalata. Several elements of Telugu folklore have been imbibed in this Ramayana some of which are deviations from Valmiki Ramayana. Further Ravana and his clan have been depicted in brighter hues and a detailed story of Sulochana, the daughter-in-law of Ravana, is also beautifully presented in it. Surprisingly Ravana is presented here as appreciating the greatness of a mighty warrior Rama and  extolling him as Viragraganya,  the first among the warriors. Another Ramayana that was popular among the masses was Molla Ramayanam of 14th C by a poetess Molla belonging to a potter community. She narrates an interesting story of Guha, the boatman, in the Ayodhya kanda which brings out Guha’s  deep devotion to Rama.

There is also an abridged version of Ramayana by Ayyalaraju Ramabhadrudu known as Ramabhyudayam. Nirvachanottara Ramayanam by Tikkana, an outstanding scholar among the poet-trio (13th C.), also stands foremost among the Telugu Uttara Ramayana. The tragic story of Sita has captured the imagination of several folklores too in Telugu literature where Sita’s birth and her abandonment by Rama is presented in a new light. Ramayana is not just a story for women in Andhra Pradesh, it is a language through which they express themselves. A number of songs sung by these women, based on Ramayana theme, represent a distinctly female way of using the Ramayana to subvert authority.

Ramacaritam is the most important work, couched in the grand epic style and suffused with a spirit of devotion to lord Rama, among the earliest works in Malayalam. The two great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are hailed as “epitomising the wisdom of the Nation matured through ages and which served both as the sacred and the secular literature for every region in India”. The most noticeable work, a literary masterpiece as well as a sacred religious text, in the whole of Malayalam literature is the translation of Adhyatma Ramayana, which is supposed to be a part of Brahmanda purana, by Tuncatty Ezhuttacchan in AD 16th  century.  It came into prominence as a text expounding the school of Bhakti with a non-dualistic slant. Ezhuttacchan’s Adhyatma Ramayana attained phenomenal popularity in Malayalam literature. Balaramayanam by Kumaran Asan is a children’s classic in Anustubh metre. He also composed a fairly long, reflective and meditative poem where Sita is depicted as lost in reveries (Cintavastayaya Sita) that is an unforgettable portrayal of Sita. The epic Patalaramayanam in Malayalam presents one of the several folk versions of the Ramayana story. According to this version, PatalaRavana, the demon lord of the nether world, wanted to help his friend Ravana in time of distress when he was fighting with Rama and was certain to lose the battle. He abducted and carried Rama and Lakshmana to his secret abode at nether world. Hanuman, after a series of adventures and a few episodes of romance, kills PatalaRavana and rescues his lord Rama and Lakshmana.

Ramayana lore creates a space for the intersection among different cultures, religions and regions, literatures and languages to portray the universal themes enshrined   in it. This is the beauty of this saga that it has always been conceptualized by writers across the ages infusing its contemporary interpretations to show that its range and depth are quite simply inexhaustible and it continues to speak to us in contemporary times. Yaksagana, a form of literature and dance in Kannada, has used different episodes of the Ramayana for dramatic presentations. We have Vimalsuri’s Paumacariya in Prakrit, Gunabhadra’s Uttarapurana in Sanskrit and Puspadanta’s Trisasti Mahapurusa Gunalankara in Prakrit that considerably influenced the later Kannada Ram Katha. What stands apart in these texts is that the persona of Ravana is delineated as a most tragic character. It embodies Jain concept of power, penance and conversion, the overpowering might of Karma which pursues one from one birth to another, makes his life as Prati Vasudeva inexorable and  inevitably drives him to his end.

Manthara, in Torave Ramayana, is not merely a hunchbacked crooked servant and a nurse to Kaikeyi, she is Maya whose sole purpose is to be a medium for fulfilling the divine will i.e. the killing of Ravana by lord Rama. As Avataravada was will established by this time, Rama is taken as an incarnation of Visnu. In 16th C. Laksmisa presents a tragic and moving account of the exile of Sita in the ‘Sesaramayana Katha’ as an interlude in his rendering of the JaiminiBharata. K.V. Puttappa’s Janapriya Ramayana, written in prose, highlights human virtues of its principal characters. K.V. Puttappa’s Sri Ramayana Darsana present Manthara, Sabari, Tara, Vali, Mandodari, Ravana with a new perspective, while Masti Venkatesa Iyengar’s Sri Rama Pattabhiseka is written in a metaphysical frame work encompassing the principle of Fate or Law,  and the destruction of self.

The Ramayana -Manjari, Kanaka -Janaki and Dasavatara -Caritam by Kshemendra signify that Sanskrit literature in Kashmir exulted in handling the Ramayana theme and survived as a great document of ist poetic, cultural and social legacy. Ramayana was there in Kashmiri folk lore also, depicting the tragic travails of Rama and Sita, crystallizing this legacy into telling expressions, though it was not as prominent as Krishna legend. These folklores have variations in the depiction of pathos permeating Rama -Sita story in a number of ballads, some of them being autobiographical, in which Sita articulates the irony of her fate in gripping pathos. During the Mughal period, the Kashmiri literary landscape was extensively dominated by Persian Ramayana particularly Mulla Masihi’s Ramayana written during the reign of Jahangir. The variations regarding the two episodes ---Sita making a sketch of Ravana after being persuaded by Ravana’s sister, and after Agnipariksha, Sita confines herself up in Asram of Valmiki ---rendered in Masihi Ramayana was closely followed by Prakas Ramayana.

The Sankara Ramayana (AD 1843), the Prakas Ramayana (AD 1846), the Visnu Pratap Ramayana (AD 1913), Sarma Ramayana, a creative rendering of Ramcharitmanans by Nilkantha Sharma (AD 1926) are major Kashmiri Ramayanas giving a modern interpretation and a new dimension to some of the major episodes of the Ramayana story. They not only carry a common message of victory of good over evil but also touch the various socio -cultural contours of their times. The birth of Sita is given a myriad interpretation in different versions – Sita was born as the daughter of Ravana in Sankara Ramayana but was buried in Mithila soon after her birth when astrologers declared her to be inauspicious, later on was dug up by Janak while ploughing the fields (I,6). According to Prakasa Ramayana, Sita was put in a box after her birth and hurled into a river only to be rescued by a washer man who  handed her to Janaka. While Vishnupratapa Ramayana had a different narration that Sita was born to Mandodari, after her inhaling the vessel filled with the drops of blood of seven Rsis.  Sarma Ramayana closely follows Tulsi’s Manas, Ramayana of Tarachand is influenced by the Adbhuta Ramayana  and records that Ravana was presented a pitcher full of blood by Rsis, he orders it to be buried in Janakpuri so that it may cause havoc to Janaka. Still Amar -Ramayana follows the Jain Uttarapurana and accordingly narrates that Sita is born as a daughter to Ravana only to avenge herself as she was molested by him in his previous birth. After her birth as a daughter to Mandodari, she is put in a pitcher and buried in Janakpuri (I,13) . These matrixes of myriad motifs of Ramayana legend exemplify the beauty of our rich tradition.

There is a detailed description of the Ahalya-Indra episode in Assamese version of Ramayana by Madhava Kandali where Ahalya is depicted as an innocent victim. She could recognize Indra only after she was seduced, but was compassionate and took pity on Indra suggesting as well as requesting him to flee away from the hermitage to avoid punishment and curse of Gautam. But Gautama appeared at the hermitage and under the curse of this great saint, the symbols of the female sex appeared all over the body of Indra. In the later sixteenth century, Ananta Kandali rendered Ramayana in Assamese verse replete with the spirit of Bhakti, and making Rama a perfect manifestation of the supreme Brahman.

Ramayana theme had an abiding appeal among the masses in Bengal too and it was only on account of its wide prevalence and its deep penetration in its life and culture that the original text of the Mahakavi of the medieval Bengal Krittivasa (15th C)  underwent many variations over the time. He came out with his immortal Saptakanda Ramayana about hundred years before Tulsidasa composed his Manasa. Although Krittivasa’s  Bengali Ramayana became a part of Bengal psyche long before Chaitanya’s Bhakti movement, the cult of Radha -Krishna gained greater popularity, hence we find the later Ramayana literature deeply surcharged with the Vaisnava devotion. The narrative of the robber Ratnakara undergoing  complete transformation into Maharshi Valmiki, a particular tinge of the Bengali Mangal Kavyas, the feat of Mahiravana, Chandipuja by Rama are some of the remarkable features of Bengali Ramayana. It was also influenced by Adbhuta and Adhyatma Ramayana and Jain Ramayana that accounts for a host of queer  interpretations.

Almost all the literary compositions of Tulsidas- Ramagyaprashna, JanakiMangal, Geetavali, Ramcharitmanas, Kavitavali- centre around the glory of Rama, but Ramcharitmanas is the most popular among all of them. The main source of inspiration for Tulsidas was no doubt Valmiki, he was enchanted by Adhyatma Ramayana and included some of the episodes taken from Bhagavadgita, Bhagavata Puran, Kamba Ramayana, Mahanataka and Prasanna Raghava. Written in Avadhi (a literary dialect of Hindi language) and using Doha and Chaupai as metres, he divided it into seven parts following Valmiki with the exception that the Yuddhakanda is here called as Lankakanda. The pathos and charm of the Rama story and the vivid portrayal of intrinsic human values woven in Ramcharitmanas influenced Dr. Vincent Smith to regard Tulsidas in his famous work Akbar the Great Mogul as “the greatest man of his age in India, greater than Akbar himself” conquering the hearts of millions of people by his immortal epic which proved more “lasting and important than any or all of the victories gained in war by the monarch” (417).

Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873), unlike traditional Rama saga, focuses on Ravana’s son Meghanada in his magnum opus Meghnadavadha Kavya (The Slaying of Meghnad), a poem retelling an episode about the third and decisive encounter between Ravana’s son and Rama’s forces. Dutt has woven this episode in such a way that he has reversed their conventional roles altogether suggesting heroic ‘raiment’ for Ravana. Nirad C. Chaudhuri in his The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian writes succinctly about this poem :

…Dutt would be shocking and perplexing us by his all too manifest  sympathy for the Demon king, by his glorification of the whole tribe of demons, and his sly attempts to show Rama and his monkey followers in a poor light…. He had read Homer and was very fond of him, and it was the Homeric association which was making him represent a war which to us was as much a struggle between opposites and irreconcilables as a war between rivals and equals. (188)

The pathos of a sad and lonely woman in her exile, was beautifully depicted by a 16th century poetess named Chandravati in her own version of Ramayana. When Janaka came to know that Sita could raise the bow of Siva by her left hand so easily while cleaning the temple, he resolved to give his daughter in marriage to the person who could lift the bow of Siva. Again, according to Krittivasa’s Ramayana, Sita was implored by her attendants to draw a portrait of Ravana while Chandravati gives an account of a vile and deliberate design of Sita’s sister in law Kakua, who made Sita to draw a portrait of Ravana. We come across these episodes in Malaysia and Thailand version of Ramayana where Kakua provoked Rama to send Sita in exile. The Jain Ramayana also has a similar incident that three queens, jealous of Sita made her to draw a picture of Ravana. Chandravati also gives an interesting account of the birth of Kusa. Lava, a little child, followed Sita while she left Ashram to fetch water from the river. Valmiki, not finding Lava nearby made a model of Lava by Kusa grass infusing life into it. Ramayana theme was also very popular in Bengali Kathakata (discourses of the Puranas and epics), folk tales and folk songs, marriage songs, Ram lila Jhumur (tribal songs), scroll painters’ songs, ritual songs, folk dramas, Srirama Panchal and puppet drama. The theme of Ramayana is also orally transmitted among the tribal people living over the border areas of West Bengal in the form of Munda Ramayana.

The local touch interwoven in the theme makes a complete Oriyanisation of the story, particularly in the Jagmohan Ramayana of Balaram Das, and enriches the text, making it a picturesque gallery of the 16th century Oriya society, religion and culture. Rama is presented here primarily as a Vaisnava of the 16th century than a banished prince of sage Valmiki, and the trio—Rama, Lakshman and Sita are successfully turned into the trio--- Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra. Even the route taken at the time of exile is centred to Orissa to highlight the sacred places of this region. Rama has been described as the seventh in Dasavatara Stuti by the most celebrated poet of Orissa Jayadeva in his renowned composition Gita Govinda. The Sanskrit poet Krsna Sri Chandanana in the literary tradition of Kalidasa composed Abad Duta (the cloud messenger) in AD 18th. The messenger is intended to convey the pathos and longings of Rama from Malayavant to Sita in the Ashoka garden at Lanka. It was followed by Kavicandra Pitambara Misra’s Sri Rama Virudavali in the 18th C. In the 20th C. Tarka Vacaspati Madhusudan, reversing the spirit of Meghaduts in his Hanumat Sandesa, strikes a novelty by sending a message to Rama by Hanuman of the grief-stricken Sita.

While some of the poets who closely followed Valmiki, were led by Balaram Das of 16th C whose Jagamohan Ramayana was held in high esteem like the Bible in each and every Oriya home. Popularly Known as Dakshini Ramayana, Balaram deviates from the original in certain episodes and gives a very vivid and realistic picture of the culture, customs, traditions and festivals in his literary text. The first among the famous trio-- Balaram Das, Jagannath Das and Sarla Das—was the renowned poet and also known as the first poet of the Oriya Ramayana is Sarla Das. While some of the episodes related to Rama in his great epic Mahabharata have a striking similarity to the Bhattikavya and Paumachariya  of Swayambhu, his Vilanka Ramayana is influenced by the Adbhuta Ramayana to a great extent where Sita ultimately appears on the battle front to kill Sahasrasira  Ravana. Jagannatha Das, the last of the trio composted Ramayana just before the advent of Sri Caitanya in Orissa. They were subsequently followed by Arjun Das, Ramavibha, Maheshwar Das’s Tika Ramayana.

The other remarkable feature is a striking similarity between the Ram Katha of Orissa and Indonesia. The birth story of Vali and Sugriva, the picture of Ravana drawn by Sita, the killing of Surpanakha’s son by Laksmana, the second mission of Hanuman, the Putresti Yajna by Dasaratha are some of the similarities between Seri Rama and Ramayana of Orissa. The characters of Ramayana are intensely close to the psyche of the Manipuri mind. Angom Gopi, a great Manipuri scholar, inspired by Bengali Ramayana of Krittivasa, came out with a comprehensive Manipuri version of Ramayana, taking certain liberties and enriching it with a local touch. Poet A. Minaketan presents the Ramayana lore in the form of a drama Sita Vanavas (exile of Sita) and Bharat Vilap (The Lamentation of Bharata). The prayer of every devout Vaishnava of Manipuri, with the words Hare Krishna and Hare Rama, is a testimony of the huge dimension that this epic poem encompasses, and it finds an eloquent expression in various forms of modern Manipuri literature. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, besides being a holy saint, a spiritual leader and tenacious warrior, was a great litterateur and an eminent scholar. He infused the spirit of heroism in Indians and made them bold and fearless by reviving the oriental spirit of the country. He presents his hero in Ramavatara as a great warrior wielding enormous power in the filed of archery as well as  martial arts.

The Ramayana tradition enjoys a unique popularity throughout the subcontinent of South Asia, and it has been enriched by different versions of the Rama saga flourishing in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia as well as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.  When one takes a synoptic view of this tropical immensity and vitality of the Ramayana story in its innumerable forms and contours and manifestations in the Indian and Southeast Asian expanses, one feels fulfilled and humbled and one can do no more than recall and register the marvelous aptness and sufficiency of Brahma’s assurance to the Adi-Kavi:

And O great Sage, as long as mountains stand
and rivers flow, so long will
this story of Rama’s heroic deeds
be told and cherished on earth.

Not only is the story told a million times, it is told in a million ways, by a million bards, minstrels, declaimers, performers and artists of the eye and ear and always the apocalyptic figures take shape before us and the ‘Divine Comedy’ unfolds before us again and again and yet again. (Iyengar, Asian 19)

The central theme of the epic---the upholding of Dharma-- contributes to a large extent in the general diffusion of the story all over the world resulting in a tantalizing versatility in South-East Asia. U. Thein Han, Chairman of the Burma Historical commission responds to the influence of the Ramayana by admitting: “Ramayana is not only a literary treasure but also a source of ennobling influence on the relationships of men as parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, relations and friends, teachers and pupils and  rulers and the ruled” (Raghavan, 165). Its popularity has not been confined to the traditional framework, but has impregnated a variety of modern media, such as comics, film strips, feature films, documentaries and the rest.

The perennial values of life enshrined in the story of Rama –  fraternal love, adherence to truthfulness, steadfastness to duty, and the ultimate triumph or righteousness and truth over evils –  found moorings in different recensions of various countries such as the Ramayana of Yogisvara in Java, the Rama-Kerti of Kambuja, the Ramakien of Thailand and the Hikayat Seri Rama of Malaya cutting across clime, age, race and religion. According to Frank E. Reynolds : “The fact that the most important ruler of the early Thai kingdom of Sukothai took the name Ramkemheng (Rama the strong) indicates that by the late 13th C some form of the Rama story was well established in the area, and that it had already been taken up by the Thai.” (55).            Malaysia with its dominant Muslim population is still fascinated by the exemplary qualities of Lord Rama. Dr. Amin Sweeny of the University of Malaya remarks: “The characters of the Lord Rama, his lady Sita, and their loyal followers still come to life nightly on the shadow screens of the north-west Malaysia where the performance of a good dalang can still draw a larger audience than a local open-air cinema showing the latest in Hollywood coco-cola culture”.

Hanuman, in Thai Ramayana, is unmistakably the hero of the Ramayana in almost all the South East Asian Countries and is highly revered by people for being a warrior, a faithful and loyal servant, a trustworthy companion and a counsellor. More interestingly here in Ramkirti the focus is on Hanuman, who is neither devout nor celibate but quite a ladies’ man, looking into the bedrooms of Lanka. He is a very popular Thai hero even today. He is an amorous hero, light and spritely unlike Indian versions, father of sons through Apsaras and nymphs in most of the Thai versions. Also like Jain Ramayana this Thai telling focuses on genealogy and adventures of Ravana and not of Rama.

The Ramakien and the Phra Lak Phra Lam both narrate just like the Jain and the Bengali versions, the incident of drawing a portrait of Ravana by Sita as being the root cause of her banishment. In an another Bengali version by Chandravati, a daughter of Kaikeyi, known as Kakua implores and persuades Sita to chaw a picture of Ravana, in Thai version it is a daughter of Surpanakha who makes Sita to draw the picture of Ravana to take revenge attributing her mother’s mutilation primarily because of Sita, while in an Indonesian version Kaikeyi herself draws the picture and puts it on Sita’s bed.

The popularity of Ramayana can be envisaged by the fact that Ramayana become the theme of the Royal court dances in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia receiving even royal patronage and support. The Ramayana theme undergoes in its travel, to many transmutation and transfigurations added by the local colour, cultural, social and anthropological background that Phra Lak Phra Lam and Khvay Thuaraphi become almost an encyclopedia of Laotian language and customs and geography. Conceived in the pattern of a Buddhist Jataka-story, Ravana (Raphanasuan) is a more dominating personality in this version. A deep and abiding influence of Ramayana was acknowledged by the Department of Culture, ministry of Laos at the presentation of the Ramayana ballet in 1979 when it proclaimed: “We still draw inspiration from this epic”.

What is remarkable about Hikayat Seri Rama, a Malay version, is that the major characters of this epic such as Rama, Sita, Ravana, Sugriva, Valin and Hanuman are in close relation to each other. In some of the recensions of Hikayat, Sita is represented as the daughter of Ravana as well as king Dasaratha, she also happens  to be Rama’s half sister whom he marries after winning her hand in the archery contest. The shadow plays, the popular puppet shows carry Rama sagas as their theme with certain variations and localizations with a distinct character of their own. Similarly the ranting (branch) stories in Malay consist of the later or minor adventures of Seri Rama and other major Ramayana characters. The theme finds an eloquent expression in Wayang Siam shadow play tradition of Kelantan based on the recension Hikayat Maharaja Wana. The Ramayana epic known as Ramayana Kakawin in Indonesia was written around the 8th or 9th Century in the old Javanese language and was used to revive Hinduism at the time when Buddhism was firmly rooted in Sumatra, West and Central Java. This revival of Hinduism was made possible through the puppet shadow play Wayang Kulit and the Wayang Purwa performed during family celebrations, festivals and cultural events. Many of the Indonesian lakons draw their inspiration from the later versions of the Ramayana.

Various rock inscriptions belonging to AD 700 found in Khmer region of Cambodia are based on stories of Ramayana. Similarly various temples, particularly Ankor Vat, built during the reign of Khmer dynasty, depict the themes of Ramayana on their walls. What is remarkable about these engravings is that Hanuman and Vanaras are not shown with tails as against the popular belief of masses. While in Sri Lanka we have Janakiharan by Kumaradasa, the Jataka stories in China relate different events of Ramayana.

Old-Javanese Kakawins or poetical works are also suffused with the saga of Rama. In Myanmar, Rama story is the most popular narrative and various tellings exist in the form of prose, verse or drama. The Rama play is performed on the stage in full splendour in the royal palace comprising a skilful interwoven plot of a series of extraordinary events and episodes crammed with adventure, battles, fighting, treachery, abduction, chivalry, the supernatural, love, ordeal etc. culminating in poetic justice – the victory of the good over evil. Many echoes of the story of Rama are found in Tibet, one of the most popular versions is commentary to the Subhasitaratnanidhi where  Rama, Lakshman and Ravana are addressed as Ramana, Lakuma and Dasagriva.

In the words of Abul Fazl: “Having observed the fanatical hatred prevailing between Hindus and Musalmans, and convinced that it arose only from their mutual ignorance, the enlightened monarch (Akbar) wished to dispel the same by rendering the books of the former accessible to the latter”, Akbar took the momentous decision to get these Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana translated into Persian language as Razmnama and Ramayana having illustrations with 168 and 176 miniatures respectively. The local colour and costumes find a prominent place in the illustrations as the characters wear Mughal court costumes and use current weapons.

Ramkatha permeates in almost every ritual of Indian folk-lore and becomes the very breath of folk literature. The apocalyptic projection of Rama is an integral part of Indian folk lore that takes him more than a legend, a myth or a symbol in the literacy arena. He becomes a part of the ‘collective consciousness and shares all our joys and all our sorrows’. Sita in folk literature is projected as a woman of strong determination, will power, chaste, tender, humble and having her unrelenting sense of dignity.

As all later recensions of Ramayanas play on the knowledge of previous ones to some extent, they are regarded as “meta-Ramayanas”. (Ramanujan 33) These different versions relate to each other in spite of the themes, incidents getting translated, transmuted, transplanted, transcreated or transposed in a variety of ways. It is this very richness of Ramayana tradition which has been a source for poets to produce an infinite series of varied and sometimes even contradictory versions. Ramanujan compares the Ramayana tradition to a pool of signifiers that includes plot, characters, names, incidents, geography and relations, stating that each new Ramayana can be seen as a crystallization :  “ These various texts not only relate to prior texts directly, to borrow or refute, but they relate to each other through this common code or common pool. Every author, if ,one may hazard a metaphor, dips into it and brings out a unique crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context.”(46).

The intensity of focus on a major character also shifts significantly in these various versions setting into motion the harmonies of the entire text. While Rama and his history is of primary concern in the opening cantos of Valmiki Ramayana; Vimalsuri’s Jain Ramayana, the Thai Ramayana and some of the other telling focus not on Rama but on the genealogy and adventures of Ravana; the Telugu and Kannada folk songs focus on Sita, her birth, her childhood, her wedding and her trials. Sita is even given a heroic stature in Adbhut Ramayana and the Tamil story of Satakantharavana. Similarly there are radical differences in the conception and delineation of major Ramayana characters. Sita, an epitome of virtue and purity, is conceived as unfaithful by Santhals, a tribe known for their oral traditions. Rama is a god in Tulsi and Kamban, he is a human being with exemplary values in Valmiki, in the Jain texts, he is an evolved soul in his last birth. In some of the versions Ravana is a diabolical figure, an overweening demon, in others he is a noble hero with remarkable attributes. In most of the Indian versions Hanuman is a celibate devotee but in most of the South east Asian variants he is a ladies’ man who figures in various love episodes. Even the focus shifts in these variants on certain major episodes. What is more significant about these telling is that they inevitably carry twentieth-century attitudes and ideology. E.V.Ramasamy recast the Rama story by politicizing the text. “He reads the Ramayana as a text of political domination; his interpretation of the text is intended to awaken South Indians to their oppression by North Indians and to their true identity as Dravidians” (Richman 176). He  “demytholizes” Rama by projecting him not only an ordinary mortal but even going further that Rama was not a particularly ‘admirable one’. He criticizes all major characters who join forces with Rama and justifies Sita’s abduction by Ravana as an honorable act of retaliation against Rama’s insult and Lakshman’s disfigurement of his sister Surpanakha.

Paula Richman finds Ramayana ‘an extraordinary eloquent language’, for Ramanujan it is ‘a second language of a whole cult’. The Ramayana provides Kamban with the language to express the complex relationship between god and a devotee; it lends Dutt the ability to articulate the colonial dilemma of cultural ambivalence; it provides Thai kings with the vocabulary of political legitimacy. Sita’s trials give Telugu women a way to talk in strong terms about a husband’s neglect, Ravana’s situation enables E.V.Ramasami to polemicize about Tamil separatism. Theological, social and political discourse : all emerge from the great pool of Ramayana tradition.

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