Even as an unlikely debate rages around the Ram Setu--whether it was built by man, nature or divinity--in a pocket of the Delhi University, right-wing student activists have taken exception to this essay by the celebrated scholar A.K. Ramanujan, on the many Ramayanas living across languages and narrative genres, each different but no less legitimate than Valmiki's epic. Excerpts from the The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan (OUP, 1999; copyright: Molly Daniels Ramanujan).How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been? And there are stories that answer the question. Here is one.
One day when Rama was sitting on his throne, his ring fell off. When it touched the earth, it made a hole in the ground and disappeared into it. It was gone. His trusty henchman, Hanuman, was at his feet. Rama said to Hanuman, "Look, my ring is lost. Find it for me."
Now Hanuman can enter any hole, no matter how tiny. He had the power to become the smallest of the small and larger than the largest thing. So he took on a tiny form and went down the hole.
He went and went and went and suddenly fell into the netherworld. There were women down there. "Look, a tiny monkey! It's fallen from above!" Then they caught him and placed him on a platter (thali). The King of Spirits (bhut), who lives in the netherworld, likes to eat animals. So Hanuman was sent to him as part of his dinner, along with his vegetables. Hanuman sat on the platter, wondering what to do.
While this was going on in the netherworld, Rama sat on his throne on the earth above. The sage Vasistha and the god Brahma came to see him. They said to Rama, "Your work in the world of human beings is over. Your incarnations as Rama must now be given up. Leave this body, come up, and rejoin the gods." So Rama summoned all his followers and arranged for the coronation of his twin sons, Lava and Kusa. Then he went to the river Sarayu and disappeared in the flowing waters.
All this while, Hanuman was in the netherworld. When he was finally taken to the King of Spirits, he asked Hanuman, "Why have you come here?"
"Rama's ring fell into a hole. I've come to fetch it."
The king showed him a platter. On it were thousands of rings. They were all Rama's rings. The king 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 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.
***The story is usually told to suggest that for every such Rama there is a Ramayana. The number of Ramayanas and the range of their influence in South and Southeast Asia over the past 2,500-odd years are astonishing. Just a list of languages in which the Rama story is found makes one gasp: Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan—to say nothing of Western languages. Through the centuries, some of these languages have hosted more than one telling of the Rama story. Sanskrit alone contains some 25 or more tellings belonging to various narrative genres. If we add plays, dance-dramas and other performances, in both the classical and folk traditions, the number of Ramayanas grows even larger.
Obviously, these hundreds of tellings differ from one another. I have come to prefer the word tellings to the usual terms versions or variants because the latter terms can and typically do imply that there is an invariant, an original or Ur-text—usually Valmiki's Sanskrit Ramayana, the earliest and most prestigious of them all. But it is not always Valmiki's narrative that is carried from one language to another. We have a variety of Rama tales told by others, with radical differences among them.
The motif of Sita as Ravana's daughter, for example, occurs in one tradition of the Jain stories (for example, in the Vasudevahimdi) and in folk traditions of Kannada and Telugu, as well as in several Southeast Asian Ramayanas. In some, Ravana in his lusty youth molests a young woman, who vows vengeance and is reborn as his daughter to destroy him.
In the Thai Ramakirti (Rama's glory) or Ramakien (Rama's story), though many incidents look the same as they do in Valmiki, many things look different as well. For instance, as in the South Indian folk Ramayanas (as also in some Jain, Bengali and Kashmiri ones), the banishment of Sita is given a dramatic new rationale. The daughter of Surpanakha (the demoness whom Rama and Laksmana had mutilated years earlier in the forest) is waiting in the wings to take revenge on Sita, whom she views as finally responsible for her mother's disfigurement. She comes to Ayodhya, enters Sita's service as a maid, and induces her to draw a picture of Ravana. The drawing is rendered indelible (in some tellings, it comes to life in her bedroom) and forces itself on Rama's attention. In a jealous rage, he orders Sita killed. The compassionate Laksmana leaves her alive in the forest, though, and brings back the heart of a deer as witness to the execution.
The focus in the Ramakien is not on family values and spirituality. Thai audiences are more fond of Hanuman. Neither celibate nor devout, as in the Hindu Ramayana, here Hanuman is quite a ladies' man, who doesn't at all mind looking into the bedrooms of Lanka and doesn't consider seeing another man's sleeping wife as anything immoral, as Valmiki's does, or Kampan's Hanuman in his Tamil Ramayana.
Ravana too is different here. The Ramakirti admires Ravana's resourcefulness and learning; his abduction of Sita is seen as an act of love and is viewed with sympathy. The Thais are moved by Ravana's sacrifice of family, kingdom and life itself for the sake of a woman. Unlike Valmiki's characters, the Thai ones are a fallible, human mixture of good and evil. The fall of Ravana here makes one sad. It is not an occasion for unambiguous rejoicing, as it is in Valmiki.
***Thus, not only do we have one story told by Valmiki in Sanskrit, we have a variety of Rama tales told by others, with radical differences among them. One point of difference is the intensity of focus on a major character. Valmiki focuses on Rama and his history in his opening sections; Vimalasuri's Jain Ramayana and the Thai epic focus not on Rama but on the genealogy and adventures of Ravana; the Kannada village telling focuses on Sita, her birth, her wedding, her trials. The Santhals, a tribe known for their extensive oral traditions, even conceive of Sita as unfaithful—to the shock and horror of any Hindu bred on Valmiki or Kampan, she is seduced both by Ravana and by Laksmana. In Southeast Asian texts, Hanuman is not the celibate devotee with a monkey face but a ladies' man who figures in many love episodes. In Kampan and Tulsi, Rama is a god; in the Jain texts, he is only an evolved Jain man who is in his last birth and so does not even kill Ravana. In the latter, Ravana is a noble hero fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon himself, while he is in other texts an overweening demon. Thus in the conception of every major character there are radical differences, so different indeed that one conception is quite abhorrent to those who hold another. Every one of these occurs in more than one text, in more than one textual community (Hindu, Jain or Buddhist), in more than one region.
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? Are the stories bound together only by certain family resemblances, as Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein might say? Or is it like Aristotle's jack-knife? When the philosopher asked an old carpenter how long he had had his knife, the latter said, "Oh, I've had it for 30 years. I have changed the blade a few times and the handle a few times, but it's the same knife." Some shadow of a relational structure claims the name of Ramayana for all these tellings, but one is not necessarily all that like another.
We read the different tellings of the Ramayana for different reasons and with different aesthetic expectations. We read the scholarly modern English translation largely to gain a sense of the original Valmiki, and we consider it successful to the extent that it resembles the original. We read Kampan to read Kampan, and we judge him on his own terms—not by his resemblance to Valmiki but, if anything, by the extent that he differs from Valmiki. In the one, we rejoice in the similarity; in the other, we cherish and savour the differences.
Every author brings out a unique crystallisation, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context. The great texts rework the small ones, for "lions are made of sheep," as French polymath Paul Valery said. And sheep are made of lions, too: a folk legend says that Hanuman wrote the original Ramayana on a mountain-top after the great war, and scattered the manuscript; it was many times larger than what we have now. Valmiki is said to have captured only a fragment of it. In this sense, no text is original, yet no telling is a mere retelling—and the story has no closure.
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