The Ramayana is not one poem, but many poems; it is not one text, but many texts; it is not a monolith, but a polylith made out of hundreds of narrations scattered across ages, cultures and continents. Professor Romila Thapar drew our attention to that when she wrote in ‘The Ramayana Syndrome‘, that “The Ramayana does not belong to any one moment in history for it has its own history which lies embedded in many versions which were woven around the theme at different times.” And it is this plurality in the cult of Rama or Ramkatha that must be acknowledged at this moment in our collective national consciousness.
If we can accept that, albeit somewhat grudgingly, we must then try to embrace the second proposition, and the more difficult one, that is, no text within this vast ocean of texts can be considered ‘authoritative’ or ‘primary’ without running the risk of oversimplification. If nowhere else, the beauty of the Ramayana tradition surely lies in the impossibility of running down one version and holding up another as true or as the most authentic. In the cult of Rama, these hundreds of different narratives, often contradictory, cohabit peacefully, accepting each other’s differences.
The most likely counter-argument is expected to come from those who want to validate Valmiki’s epic poem as the fountainhead of the Ramayana tradition. But the problem is its very language. In almost all ages since its composition, the Sanskrit text has been consumed by only a minuscule fraction of the reading public. Tulsidas’s Ramcaritmanas written in Hindi, Kamban’s Iramavataram written in Tamil or Krittibasa’s Ramayana in Bengali, for instance, have always enjoyed a far wider acceptance and larger readership. Besides, many scholars like Hermann Jacobi (who wrote Das Ramayana in German) believe that out of the 24,000 verses in the Valmiki text, only 6,000 are his own, the rest are interpolations.
Hence any attempt at prioritising the Valmiki Ramayana as the authoritative version should be questioned. Talking of that, when Paula Richman titled her 2001 book Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition, Anthropologist Jonah Blank noted in a review essay, that “either word in the title… might earn a scholar’s blessing, and a zealot’s fulmination. Religious militants view the Ramayana as a single, pristine document… in any case a sacred text wholly beyond the realm of human questioning. The history of India’s beloved epic, however, is rich with complexity and contradiction…”
Noted Belgian Indologist Camille Bulcke’s DPhil thesis mentions at least 300 extant versions of the Ramayana text. The texts from north, south and east India mentioned above are three of the best known alternative narratives popular to generations of Indian readers for their unpretentious charm. There are hundreds of other versions; their differences arising out of socio-political distinctions, varied cultural perspectives and different understanding of the concepts of Dharma, Niti and Niyama.
In Sanskrit alone, there are more than 20 texts. The Buddhist and Jain Ramayana pose serious challenges to the Brahminical cult of Rama. In Dasaratha Jataka, the Buddhist story of King Rama originally composed in Pali, Sita and Rama are sister and brother who rule Ayodhya for 15,000 years after their marriage. And the general consensus is that it predates Valmiki’s poem by centuries. The Jain Ramayana, Vimalasuri’s Taumacharyam written in Prakrit, has Ravana, a devout Jain monk, as its protagonist. Neither the Tamil text, Ranganatharamayana, nor the Marathi text, Tampa Ramayana, is a faithful translation of Valmiki.
The cult of Rama extends beyond the Indian subcontinent. If we look at the far east, Indonesia, the most populous Muslim majority country in the world, has a rich Ramayana tradition. Several texts are available in Sundanese, Malay and Javanese literature. In one of the Sundanese texts Sita is the daughter of Ravana. At the same time, Rama accuses her of giving birth to Ravana’s offspring. Sita’s sons refer to Ravana’s other children as their uncles and to Mandodari as their grandmother. And hence the war between Rama and Ravana is a family affair, just as the war in the Mahabharata is. In the Malay and Javanese versions, however, Dasaratha is Sita’s father. In the Thai version called The Ramakien, Phra Ram, the hero, is a reincarnation of the Buddha who rules Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand. The Cambodian text, Ramakerti too, marries Indian ideals to Buddhist themes. There is a Yunnan text in Tai Lu language called Langka Sip Hor as is there the Japanese Ramaenna.
In Paula Richman’s book, A.K. Ramanujan wrote a brilliant essay titled Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, in which he discusses the departures in the various Indian and south Asian texts and the mythemes that connect one version with another. Towards the end of the essay, Ramanujan writes,
“Now, is there a common core to the Rama stories, except the most skeletal set of relations like that of Rama, his brother, his wife, and the antagonist Ravana who abducts her?… Some shadow of a relational structure claims the name of Ramayana for all these tellings, but on closer look one is not necessarily all that like another. Like a collection of people with the same proper name, they make a class in name alone.”
In October 2011, succumbing to intense pressure from right-wing groups, the Delhi University academic council dropped the essay from its undergraduate BA syllabus. The decision by then vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh was welcomed by the ABVP, but it triggered protests from a section of the academia with hundreds of professors and students hitting the streets raising slogans like “Historical inquiry pe attack nahi sahenge”.
To any unprejudiced mind, the Ramayana is not about one inviolable Truth, but accommodates within its fold multiple cultures, faiths, traditions. And they have survived within the Ramayana tradition because primarily it is a kavya, a poem about domestic life. Rabindranath Tagore noted that despite there being mention of warfare, the Ramayana is a tale of a father and a son, a husband and a wife, friends and brothers, the servitor and the served.
How this secular text got communalised and eventually politicised is a different discourse. But when one looks at it with an open mind, in post-1992 India, one can’t help wonder, to paraphrase Cristopher Marlowe, is this the text that spilled so much blood?
Indradeep Bhattacharyya teaches literature and is a former journalist based in Kolkata.