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Variations of the Ramayana

Festival time in India comes with many legends. Diwali, for example, celebrates the return of Lord Rama after 14 years of exile. The story of Rama as related in the Ramayana has enjoyed universal appeal. However, it has been subject to many alteration, adaptations and translations….

The universality of the Ramayana is a phenomena that has no parallel in the history of literature. What is equally unique, is the liberty which the literary tradition has taken, generation after generation, with the story as well as with the characters that figure in the story. This is particularly remarkable when we consider that the earliest account of the Ramayana belongs to Valmiki, acknowledged as the adikavi (or the first poet). If in the recognized work of such excellence, where authorship is not unknown, liberties are taken and changes have been made without reserve, it is worth examining this phenomena at some length. Was there any social purpose behind these efforts at “modification?” In what way do they show any significance?

At the outset, it is possible to observe that the two features viz. universality in appeal and liberty in treatment are inter-related. In a long tradition of literary communication – especially one that leans heavily on oral transmission – ad hoc improvisation and adaptation to suit the local audience is unavoidable; it is indeed a necessary ingredient of bard poetry, in order to ensure that kind of appeal which becomes universal eventually. The wider its appeal to the people, the greater the attraction for poets and raconteurs to the theme; the more the narrators, the greater the variation, and so on. Even when the original epic is closely followed, variety in interpretation or emphasis is possible to such an extent as can be seen, for instance, in the English translations of Valmiki that have appeared in this century. Most of the variations in the Ramayana can be grouped under: sectarian versions – Buddhist, Jain, Shakta; versions in Sanskrit – the Kavya tradition; regional versions in the languages of India and translations of Valmiki.

Whatever may have been the source material in the form of floating legends, Valmiki’s epic was the first work to enter the world of literature. Eventually, it became part of world literature. His stature is reflected in epithets such as adikavi and margadarsi (one who shows the direction) by which the Indian tradition refers to him. He is the father of Indian literature not merely in terms of antiquity but by virtue of his universality. For, he stands aloft as the poet of the universe; what he sings in praise of is human dignity that makes for nobler life. Valmiki’s classic is for all humanity and the values that he upholds

are eternal. His was, and remains to this day, the only non-sectarian representation of the Rama legend.

The power and potential of the story, as a vehicle of idealism, was quickly recognized, especially by the Buddhists and Jaina schools of thought that were expressly committed to the propagation of their faiths. Dharma, incidentally is the anchor for all Indian faiths: right thought, right speech and right conduct are enshrined in the concept of raina traya (the three gems). Thus we find the Jataka tales embodying the story of Rama, albeit briefly.

The object is to glorify self-sacrifice, renunciation; Rama’s cheerful acceptance of banishment is a manifestation of it. Rama, the story can also be seen as re-enactment of Buddha’s life.

Chronologically, if the Jataka tales are considered as prior to Valmiki Ramayana, then the adikavi should be deemed to have enlarged an episode into an epic and turned a sectarian story into universal heritage.

The motivation for the Jaina school of thought to adopt the Ramayana was, evidently, similar to that of the Buddhists – viz, to uphold renunciation as the ultimate summum bonum of life. The story, already popular by the 3rd century A.D., receive full treatment in the Paumacariyu of Vaimalasuri. Written in Prakrit, the language in which Jainas and Buddhists propagated their doctrines among the people. The work seeks to achieve two things: to contradict the “lies and absurdities “of existing story (evident reference to Valmiki) and to establish the goodness of all beings that are depicted as bad – Kaikeyi, Vali, and Ravana. Rakshasas are represented as Vidyadharas, a class of people with knowledge and spiritual powers; so are vanaras. Situations of killing are avoided, including the incident of the golden deer. Lakshmana killed Ravana and goes to hell for not following Jaina ideals whereas Rama becomes a Jain; Sita, and even Kaikeyi, converts into a Jain nun, thus making the story expressly subordinate to missionary preaching. Needless to say, all the dramatic power is lost, but the version does not seek to attain the level of literature.

When the Jain tradition sought to gain elite recognition by retelling the story in Sanskrit it did not improve matters very much. Padma caritam of Ravisena in the 7th century is not any more popular than Pauma cariyu.

The mutation that the Ramayana underwent in the hands of the votaries of the Shakti and Sahaja cults in medieval times is exemplified in Bhusundi Ramayana which appeared in Sanskrit in the 12th century A.D.

Raslila and amorous sports from part of the narration. Dr. Bhagwati Prasad Singh has drawn attention to the influence of that cult on the sculpture in Khajuraho, depicting Rama and Sita in amorous poses, which speaks of the kind of dominant influence. At the same time Bhusundi injects the Jaina ideal of renunciation on the story, in the departure

of Dasaratha and Kaikeyi on a pilgrimage, leaving Rama to rule Ayodhya. The story becomes subordinate to didacticism.

The “Adhyatma Ramayana” in Sanskrit, which also belongs to this period, and which was one of the influences on Bhusundi, is recognized as an instrument in the propagation of adivaiti or non-dualistic philosophy, combined with devotion to Rama. In this light, it becomes yet another version devised to press a sectarian view.

The Kavya tradition is Sanskrit draws the line of continuity in tradition. Beginning with Bhasa’s abhisheka Nataka’ we find the classical tradition reverting to the Ramayana story, like bees that keep returning to the favourite louts. Works such as ‘Janakiharana’ of Kumaradasa ‘Uttara Ramacharitam’ of Bhavabhooti and ‘Kundmala’ of Dinnaga are classics, known to scholars. Kalidasa’s ‘Raghuvamsam’ stands apart, being more in the nature of a chronicle of the solar race (to which Rama belonged); yet its poetic merit is universally recognized. Minor works such s ‘Anandaraghavam’ and ‘Anargava raghavam’ reflect the continuum in the tradition, unaffected by the rise of regional languages.

The first major work of classical status in a language other than Sanskrit or Prakrit happens to be in Tamil. This is Kamban’s Ramayana (‘Ramakathai’ was the original title) which belongs to the 10th century A.D., though some scholars seems to place it earlier and some others later. Running into about 10,000 stanzas (more, according to some editions). The striking feature in the periods to follow is that as languages grew in stature, almost the first serious work in any language, happened to be a rendering of the Ramayana. The Pampa Ramayana of Nagachandra in Kannada, The Ranganatha Ramayana in Telugu, The Vilanka Ramayana in Oriya, Krithivasa’s Ramayana in Bengali, Madhar Kunali’s work in Assamese and Ezhuttaccan’s work in Malayalam, are some of the works that proceed the famous and monumental work of Tulsidas in the language known as Awadhi. In turn, in each language the version of Ramayana became the path-maker for literary development.

Apart from regional versions produced by eminent poets in each language, there have been, in the last two centuries, a growing number of translations of the original English versions which are also available in good number. The extent and nature of variations in the different versions of the Ramayana are wide, baffling and yet offer a cogent picture. Adapting the great epic to the milieu in which the new writers lived, they have changed details around in a fashion so as to keep the emphasis on the qualities of Rama.

No great classic has nourished the Indians, generation after generation so richly as the Ramayana. Equally no great classic has allowed itself to be handled thus by the very people who seek and draw such nourishment. One variation while interpolation or variation while discussion the Iliad of Homer or even Kalidasa in our own tradition.

The Ramayana is a class apart.