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There is, arguably, no other text in known history, that has had as pervasive and as powerful an influence over the cultures of more distinctly different and diverse people than the Ramayana.
Amidst all the speculation, guesswork, hyperbole and disputations surrounding it, one fact, plain and simple, stands out: The Ramayana can still be, it seems, all things to all men. And, sometimes, to women too. This, surely, is the secret of its abiding appeal.
Whatever it is we may take its genre to be, literature, scripture, dharmic oracle, legend or (as some insist) history; no matter how we may wish to read it; the Romance of Rama: the tender love story of prince Rama for his chosen princess; the Adventures of Rama: the compelling saga of court intrigue, forest exile and the violence of countless duels and honour-fights, of men, beasts and demons, the word of God, whatever … the epic-poetic text referred to as the Ramayana is a veritable font of stories, that is endlessly and wondrously captivating.
Millions of people of every clime, culture and country, since time immemorial, have been gripped by its narrative sway, moral subtlety, ethical currency and the truth of the all-too-human foibles of its characters.
Whether you are a faithful devotee, convinced of its divinity, hanging on the very utterance of the name “Rama”, or a die-hard fan of the innumerable cultural products spun-off the tale—from theatre, drama, dance, puppet shows and shadow plays to comic books, films, songs, TV serials and cartoons—or an artist-scholar theorising a new instance of the “distributed diasporic imaginary”1 of the narrative, the Ramayana speaks to each of us individually and uniquely. As if, it is speaking to no one else. This is the source of its indisputable, undiminished power.
As the Ramayana scholar Paula Richman has shown, the tradition of the epic consists of multiplicities and pluralities; a lineage that implicitly permits questioning, elaboration, extension and elision within a convention of prescribed boundaries2. Therefore, in positing hegemonic interpretations and “weaponising” the Ramayana against groups who do not conform to their own narrow worldview, powerful groups in Indian society in effect deny part of its core nature. Ironically, the extremism of India’s Hindutva nationalists serves only to intellectually defile the Ramayana.
Even so it would be quite wrong to think of the Ramayana as a work consisting of a single, canonic, hegemonic, invariant text. As the late poet, scholar and translator A.K. Ramanujan has argued, there is no original, inviolable Ur-text3. There are merely “tellings” and “re-tellings” of the story. Each telling is always somewhat in sympathy with others, and always somewhat different from the others.
The earliest of these tellings, when the Ramayana was still part of India’s great oral tradition, date back to circa 1500 BCE.
The revered Valmiki text, running to all of 24,000 stanzas in classical Sanskrit, is usually dated to be around 400 BCE. Throughout the span of this vast ocean of time, the story of Rama has remained largely unchanged.
Rama is born the eldest son and heir to the throne of Ayodhya's King Dasharatha. Rama's stepmother Kaikeyi, who wishes to see her own son Bharata ascend to the throne, asks Dasharatha to fulfill a boon he had granted to her years before for saving his life, requesting that Rama be exiled to the forest.
She was encouraged to make this demand by Kooni, her maidservant. Rama, the obedient son, immediately relinquishes the throne and leaves with his faithful wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana. In the forest Sita is abducted by the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, and held by other demons in Lanka.
Rama asks for help rescuing Sita from the monkey King Sugriva, son of the sun god, and from Hanuman, who goes to Lanka to find Sita on Rama's behalf. After a great battle between Rama and Ravana in which Rama kills Ravana, Sita is rescued, beaming with happiness to be reunited with her husband.
However, Rama receives her with coldness, saying that she can no longer be his wife after having dwelt with Ravana. Sita insists on her innocence in vain and finally orders her funeral pyre to be built, since she would rather die by fire than live without Rama. Rama sees her enter the flames to undergo the trial by fire, which is supposedly a test of her purity.
Sita passes the trial, emerging unscathed in the arms of Agni, the fire deity. She is now welcomed by Rama, whose behaviour she tenderly forgives, but not before the gods reveal Rama's divine nature to him by way of admonishing him for his treatment of Sita. The conquest won, Ravana defeated, and Sita restored, Rama returns to govern Ayodhya with Sita by his side.
So much for the Valmiki’s story, which bleeds into the re-tellings and adaptations which follow suit, and, because this is India, there are stories to explain why this must be so. One of the stories, involving Rama's devotee Hanuman, goes like this:
Hanuman was in the netherworld. When he was finally taken to the King of Spirits, he kept repeating the name of Rama. 'Rama Rama Rama'.
Then the King of Spirits asked, "Who are you?"
"Hanuman? Why have you come here?"
"Rama's ring fell into a hole. I've come to fetch it."
The king looked around and showed him a platter. On it were thousands of rings. They were all Rama's rings. The king brought the platter to Hanuman, set it down, and said,
"Pick out your Rama's ring and take it."
They were all exactly the same.
"I don't know which one it is," said Hanuman, shaking his head.
The King of Spirits said,
"There have been as many Ramas on earth as there are rings on this platter. When you return to earth, you will not find Rama. This incarnation of Rama is now over. Whenever an incarnation of Rama is about to be over, his ring falls down. I collect them and keep them. Now you can go."
So, Hanuman left.4
Just a listing of languages in which the Rama story has been told is astounding: Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malay, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan and Western languages. Some of these languages have more than one telling of the story.
Since the 10th century the retellings have been innumerable within India itself. What is more remarkable is that many are literary masterpieces: Kamban’s Ramavataram (Tamil), Gona Budda Reddy’s Ramayanam (Telegu), Madhava Kandali’s Saptakanda Ramayana (Assamese), Krittivasi Ojha’s Shri Rama Panchali (Bengali), Sarala Das’ Vilanka Ramayana and Balaram Das' Dandi Ramayana (both in Oriya), Sant Eknath’s Bhavarth Ramayana (Marathi), Tulsidas’ Ramcharitamanas (Hindi), Thunchaththu’s Adhyaathmaramayanam Kilippattu (Malayalam) and Sikh, Jain and Buddhist adaptations.
“Astounding” barely does justice to the cultural phenomenon that is the Ramayana.
No Indian ever hears the Ramayana for the first time. It inheres in all our various, multifarious milieus; an ambient, pre-natal presence in all our lives.
For Indians and non-Indians alike we may rightfully say, “[…] that the cultural area in which Ramayanas are endemic has a pool of signifiers (like a gene pool), signifiers that include plots, characters, names, geography, incidents, and relationships. Oral, written, and performance traditions, phrases, proverbs, and even sneers carry allusions to the Rama story.”5
The Ramayana is such a cultural phenomenon because it holds out a promise; imperfect, fleeting and unlikely as it may seem, it is the promise of the possibility of justice and order in life, ultimately based on goodness, virtue, beauty and the fellowship of man and beast, anywhere on earth.
1 The myths of a people have the power to become part of their collective unconscious. They seed imaginations; endless sources for expression, spanning distances of geography and history. The finest articulation of this power was the St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott’s (1930–2017) remembrance of Ramleela, the epic dramatisation of the Ramayana. "Derek Walcott - Nobel Lecture: The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory". Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 4 Oct 2017.
2 Richman, Paula, editor. Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1991 1991.
3 Ibid. Richman, Paula, editor.
1 The myths of a people have the power to become part of their collective unconscious. They seed imaginations; endless sources for expression, spanning distances of geography and history. The finest articulation of this power was the St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott’s (1930–2017) remembrance of Ramleela, the epic dramatisation of the Ramayana. "Derek Walcott - Nobel Lecture: The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory". Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 4 Oct 2017.2 Richman, Paula, editor. Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1991 1991.3 Ibid. Richman, Paula, editor.4 Ibid. Richman, Paula, editor.5 Ibid. Richman, Paula, editor.